Downtown arena given green light

Video from press conference at Sweetwater

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) A committee has recommended the city pursue building a multi-million-dollar arena in downtown Fort Wayne.

Sweetwater founder Chuck Surack announced Monday the downtown arena committee unanimously voted to recommend the arena. The committee was called to study the viability of such a complex in the city’s heart.

“We had a great committee committed to performing the necessary due diligence to conclude that a downtown arena would be a tremendous asset for Fort Wayne,” said Surack, who led the committee. “I’m honored to have been part of the process and want to congratulate my fellow committee members for demonstrating dedication and passion for wanting to do what’s best for our community and region.”

“To realize that this entire community made up of 19 very diverse individuals representing a number of different disciplines in our city as well as potential competition, they all came together and unanimously approved this initiative. So, it’s very exciting for our city,” Mayor Tom Henry said. “It absolutely takes us to the next level.”

The committee has recommended a multipurpose entertainment center on the block north of The Harrison, between Parkview Field and the Allen County Public Library, west of the Grand Wayne Center.

It was May 2015 when Mayor Tom Henry announced the potential for a downtown arena, after a study championed a 5,000-seat, $48-$63 million downtown arena that would include parking, restaurants and a walkway to the Grand Wayne Center.

Sweetwater founder Chuck Surack, flanked by Mayor Tom Henry, announces the results of a study of a downtown arena on Monday, March 21, 2016.
Sweetwater founder Chuck Surack, flanked by Mayor Tom Henry, announces the results of a study of a downtown arena on Monday, March 21, 2016.

Nearly a year later, a committee born out of that recommendation has recommended just that.

Surack said Monday the committee eyed an arena that would serve as a venue for entertainment and professional and collegiate events too small for the Memorial Coliseum but too large for the Embassy Theatre. It would not include an ice surface, the committee said.

Rather than a competitor, the arena would be “complement” the Embassy, the Grand Wayne Center and other venues, and serve as a “catalyst” for downtown development, Surack said.

The committee focused on four separate areas: finance, governance, facilities, and programming. Board members from both the Embassy and the Memorial Coliseum sat on committee. The members said they still have questions and reservations, but not enough to keep them from supporting the plan.

“In my opinion,  there will not be enough other events that would utilize the downtown facility that wouldn’t take from the Coliseum, the Embassy, and other facilities. We have to develop an income stream that will cover losses that the Coliseum may incur because they’re going to lose some business, there’s no question about it. Hopefully, in time, there will be enough business for everyone, but the Coliseum has always operated in the black regarding its operating expenses. We’ve got to make sure that continues because that facility is so good,” committee member and Memorial Coliseum Board of Trustees member Dennis Sutton. “I had to be convinced. Chuck said initially there was a lot of people asking a lot of questions, I did. I did all of the way through the process. The idea is we love Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne is on a roll, and we want to continue the roll. We don’t want to do it at the expense of other facilities.”

“The Embassy is a non for profit, so we have kind of a different playing field as far as events and entertainment.  As we moved along and looked at this, those issues haven’t been totally answered, but the project has so much benefit to the community, we want to continue to look at it.  Keeping in mind, we want to make sure that the impact to the Embassy is handled either through management or organization perspectives,” committee member and Embassy Theatre Board of Directors member Gary Wasson said. “These questions will continue to bounce along as the project develops, but at this point, we didn’t think it was enough to say no, we shouldn’t be for it and vote against it.”

With a price tag in the tens of millions, funding such a development will be a task. Surack said the committee has recommended that property taxes not be used. Instead, it pitched a one cent food and beverage user fee be established to help offset the cost. It also recommended the use of Legacy funds and funding from the Capital Improvement Board, Surack said.

Map of downtown Fort Wayne shows the various venues for entertainment, including Parkview Filed Stadium, Allen County Public Library, restaurants and more.
Map of downtown Fort Wayne shows the various venues for entertainment, including Parkview Filed Stadium, Allen County Public Library, restaurants and more.

The recommendation Monday had Henry all smiles.

“I continue to be encouraged by the momentum and excitement in our city,” said Henry. “I’m appreciative of the time and dedication it took the committee to reach a final recommendation on the arena and look forward to what the future holds for Fort Wayne. We’re fortunate to be in position to be able to be bold and strive for greatness as we come together to make investments that will have a lasting impact.”

The future, as Henry said, will unfold soon.

Henry said he’ll meet with city staff to review the committee’s recommendation, then meet with the Allen County commissioners. From there, Henry said a schematic design process will be launched, and the city will hire a firm to design the arena. Funding sources will also need to be finalized, Henry said.

Finally, Henry said the city will work to acquire the downtown block, and establish financial resources and budgets, architectural work, leadership and oversight structure and a timeline.

It’s not clear when actual construction would begin.

In response to the announcement by the Downtown Arena Study Committee, the Allen County Board of Commissioners released the following statement:

“The Board of Commissioners is pleased with the study committee’s recommendation to gather additional information regarding this project and, following consultation with some members of the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum Board of Trustees, fully supports the necessary funding from appropriate sources so this evaluation can be carried out. The Commissioners believe it is important that the long-term interests of the Coliseum be protected and it is their expectation that any new information will be shared with all affected and interested parties in a full and transparent fashion. The Commissioners look forward to reviewing and discussing the findings at the appropriate time.”

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