John Kaatz, principal of Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, talks about how use of space across from the Grand Wayne Convention Center could be used during a presentation by his group. Staff photo by Lisa Esquivel Long
John Kaatz, principal of Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, talks about how use of space across from the Grand Wayne Convention Center could be used during a presentation by his group. Staff photo by Lisa Esquivel Long
Fort Wayne has done more than improve. It's a completely different city from a few years ago, says the head of a firm that conducted a Grand Wayne Convention Center strategic plan study.

Fort Wayne's convention and entertainment market is rapidly developing, John Kaatz, a principal with the Minneapolis office of Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, said after the Feb. 28 meeting of the Capital Improvement Board. Representatives of a number of downtown groups and other venues also attended, including City Council, Greater Fort Wayne, TinCaps, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and Allen County Public Library.

"I don't see a glaring need to add exhibitor space," said Kaatz, whose firm did a similar study of Grand Wayne five years ago. In that time the city has announced major investments into projects along the riverfront and the former General Electric complex on Broadway. Within a year or two, the number of downtown hotels could be doubling, providing more rooms for visitors to see the city's growing number of attractions.

While Kaatz explained what kinds of entertainment and green space options would be available if the Capital Improvement Board used the so-called "Fast-Food Block" across the street from the Grand Wayne, he noted that marketing is another large component.

"It's not if you build it they will come," he said. "It's you market it, and you have a shot."

The study reaffirmed the direction that the city is going, said Bart Shaw, Grand Wayne executive director.

Working with Visit Fort Wayne, the city's and Allen County's convention and visitors bureau, "We'll continue to look at ways to increase the attendee experience," he said.

The study pointed out how the Grand Wayne compared to other cities' facilities. Some positives: Seating and table areas in the lobby allow for small-group meetings. The Grand Wayne just got white dry-erase boards that could be used there. The vertical 6-foot boards can also be used as partitions to create spaces, Shaw said. While the trend is for meeting room space to hold breakout sessions, and Grand Wayne's space is smaller compared to other markets, Kaatz said, visitors could use these lobby spaces.

Jim Cook, the board's president, said a committee will be meeting to consider the ideas in the study.

"We're going to investigate it," said Dan O'Connell, head of Visit Fort Wayne, who attended the presentation. "We're going to start breaking down these different things, the components: what's needed for marketing, what's needed for design, what's needed for green space, what's needed to build an action plan to implement of these."

Some key points from the study:

• The addition of the Electric Works and riverfront development projects puts the Grand Wayne in the center of things rather than on the very edge of the previous visitor amenities boundaries for hotels, restaurants and attractions.

• Hotel occupancy will be changing with the addition of two downtown hotels: the Hilton Fort Wayne and Courtyard will be joined this summer by the Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton adjacent to Parkview Field, home of Fort Wayne's TinCaps Class A Minor League Baseball team. A fourth hotel is planned for the corner of Harrison and Main streets.

• Expanding in the 1.6 acres across the street from the land-locked convention center would provide additional space. Acquiring Allen County Public Library's parking lot just north of that would create 3.6 acres that include a 20,000 to 25,000-square-foot facility with open walls. 

• Iconic art can play a role in telling a city's history or as a way of creating a brand. The Colorado Convention Center has its 40-foot blue bear and Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory has its 120-foot Big Bat, Kaatz said.

The Capital Improvement Board oversees Allen County’s 1 percent food and beverage tax.

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