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Courtesy photo
A man-made canal that shoots off from the river between the new developments on the north side is one of many suggestions for riverfront development.

Riverfront can be the city’s ‘next zoo’

Fort Wayne’s planned riverfront development has a great deal of potential as a tourism asset.

There was much excitement when Mayor Tom Henry created Legacy Fort Wayne in 2011, designed to guide the decision-making about the Fort Wayne Community Trust and City Light Lease Settlement funds. The mayor solicited hundreds of ideas from the community on how best to utilize this once-in-a-lifetime windfall. Of all the recommendations, the desire for riverfront development and the need for a comprehensive and thorough study rose to the top of the priority list. Because of this, Henry has commissioned a comprehensive study to look at potential ways to draw people to one of our biggest natural assets: the riverfront.

As board chairperson of Visit Fort Wayne and a concerned citizen, I see three ways that a tourist-centric development would be the right addition to our riverfront.

First, there is room for another destination-defining asset in our community. The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is a prime example. The zoo has enjoyed a great deal of success over the years, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. So the question is: What will be the next zoo? What will be our city’s next big attraction? I’m hoping that a strategically planned tourism development on the riverfront could be the next big thing for Fort Wayne and would make our city an even better visitor destination.

Second, the amount of land around the riverfront is significant, more than 30 acres. There is room for several areas of investment to serve both residents and visitors. A significant tourism-oriented investment would bring people back to the city’s urban core. Parkview Field is a perfect example of this type of development that appeals to both residents and visitors. We enjoy the ball games, but so do visitors. In fact, more than 1 in 3 attendees is from outside the county.

Most of our current tourist attractions are “passive,” meaning that people mostly look at or watch something. While all are enjoyable, and certainly are fun, they don’t require much activity on the part of the visitor. Think about the most exciting experiences you’ve had in your life. Did they involve watching something or actually doing it? Let’s offer active experiences on the riverfront.

To become an even better tourism destination, we need to create more interactive, dynamic experiences for our city’s guests. With the opportunity on the riverfront, we have a chance to engage people and get them involved so that the experience is enjoyable and memorable.

So what tourism projects are we thinking about? Here are some of Visit Fort Wayne’s ideas for riverfront development:

Outdoor adventure course: Picture a section of the riverfront with zip lines, climbing rocks, camping and extreme sports. These activities are challenging, fun and immerse people in the experience. These activities are synergistic with the existing Rivergreenway, the skateboard park and Fort Wayne trails.

Railroad park: We’re aware of one proposal that calls for a space to house the treasured 765 steam locomotive. Headwaters Junction would be a nod to Fort Wayne’s train history and showcase a unique, authentic asset.

That’s what visitors want in their tourism experiences – authentic and unique. It would also be synergistic with the other neighboring historic attractions, the Old Fort and Wells Street Bridge.

Canal water feature: A man-made canal stemming from the river could provide a source of aesthetic value and entertainment, as well as commercial development.

It could be used for water-based attractions such as renting model-sized radio-controlled boats and could be illuminated at night, similar to the lights on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge.

Natural playground and education center: Kids today don’t spend enough time outdoors. A super-sized playground with water, rocks, plants and sand is not only interactive, but complements many of our other city attractions that appeal to families with young children – the Children’s Zoo, Science Central and Parkview Field. This feature would co-exist nicely with wetlands, waterfalls or other natural assets in the environment.

Adjacent museums: Quirky, themed museums such as Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, wax museums or spy museums are popular for a reason. They’re fun and offbeat.

By placing them in close proximity to one another, the “density” creates a synergistic zone which could draw people to the riverfront, adding more reasons for them to stay and producing even more customers for the other food and entertainment options.

Year-round winter park: A year-round theme park could provide multiple winter fun experiences all year long.

Imagine a five-story toboggan run similar to Pokagon State Park, which is chilled in winter, then uses carpets for sliding in summer. A ski lodge restaurant with a working ski lift ride and alpine roller coaster could fit into Lawton Park with Science Central on one side and Headwaters Park festival park and ice rink on the other side of the river, attracting visitors for all three venues.

The Visit Fort Wayne Board of Directors believes that incorporating tourism ideas such as these into riverfront development will attract visitors, as well as add to the quality of life for residents. In addition, encouraging development by for-profit tourism businesses will bring new jobs and more spending into our economy too.

These are just a few of the ideas and possibilities to make the riverfront a viable tourist destination. I highly encourage you to submit these or your own ideas online at

Gary Shearer is chairman of the Visit Fort Wayne board of directors. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.