The 45th annual Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival opens Friday and is expected to draw about 400,000 spectators before it ends eight days later. But as Dan O'Connell reminded members of the Downtown Business club Wednesday, the city's tourism industry is year-round, lucrative and ripe with potential often overlooked by residents who wonder why anyone would ever want to visit such a seemingly nondescript destination.
As president and chief executive officer of Visit Fort Wayne, it is of course O'Connell's job to say such things. But the numbers back him up, and so do the community assets that are obvious to visitors but too often invisible to those afflicted with the city's self-defeating inferiority complex.
Will Fort Wayne ever be Chicago or even Indianapolis? No, and neither will it ever have mountains, a coastline or constant temperate weather. That's not the point. The point is that about 5.2 million people visited the city last year, spending about $466 million, generating $13 million in taxes and sustaining 7,000 jobs. And while it's true that many of those visitors come from small towns looking for “big-city” attractions, O'Connell noted that many of those attractions are also viewed favorably even by people from cities far larger than Fort Wayne.
“(Visitors) like Fort Wayne because our facilities are above average, and they didn't expect that. When we finally get around to doing something, we do it very well,” O'Connell said, referring to the Memorial Coliseum, Grand Wayne Center, the expanded main library and its world-renowned genealogy collection, Children's Zoo, Parkview Field and other venues that draw visitors in three major categories: conventions and other group events, leisure and sports.
Twenty national events are already scheduled for Fort Wayne this year, and O'Connell said visitors spend about 25 percent more than residents. What's more, many of those guests have not been to this city for years – if ever. “They say, 'It's really different that when I was here in '75,' ” he added.
And that is the point.
I'm old enough to remember the waning days of downtown's pre-eminence as a commercial, business and entertainment hub. But I'm also old enough to remember the urban desert left behind after much of the human and financial capital fled to the suburbs: empty buildings, vacant lots, desolate sidewalks and, even worse, no real plan or means to reverse the decay.
As a conservative, I sometimes marvel at how easily once-independent Americans have been seduced into a gradual dependence on government – and, of course, on those politicians who promise ever-larger amounts of stuff at other people's expense. But that frog-in-boiling-water stuff works both ways, and should not blind us to positive changes that have come so slowly they are often overlooked, especially by young residents lacking the historical perspective and patience to appreciate them.
Thirty-six years as a journalist will make anyone at least a bit cynical, but I cringe when I hear 20- or 30-somethings bemoan the slow pace of positive change in Fort Wayne. In the past few years alone we have seen the construction of Parkview Field and other downtown improvements, new ice and volleyball facilities, new restaurants. Older facilities, including the zoo, library, Coliseum and Grand Wayne Center have been expanded and renovated, and the city's schools are also getting a much-needed facelift. New festivals, events and ideas abound and, thanks to millions of dollars from the sale of the city's electric utility and local restaurant taxes, even more dramatic projects are not only possible but likely.
Like all cities, Fort Wayne is far from perfect and I have nitpicked at some aspects of some of those government-funded projects. But, taken collectively, even that partial list makes it clear that the quality of life here and into the future has much to offer to residents and visitors alike.
And you shouldn't have to be a Pollyanna or paid community spokesman to recognize it.
O'Connell uses nearly half his $1.4 million budget to sell that message in 28 Midwestern cities, drawing most leisure visitors from northwest Indiana and northeast Ohio while often successfully competing for conventions with cities such as Louisville, Dayton and, yes, Indianapolis.
Fort Wayne's cost of living – a night in a hotel costs about 15 percent less than Indianapolis, O'Connell said – helps sell the city. But so do its people, whom visitors regularly praise for their friendliness and hospitality.
So why should anyone want to visit Fort Wayne?
Look around and in the mirror with a fresh perspective and find out.