For Grand Wayne: Green space, ballroom

March 1, 2019

A consultant hired to evaluate the Grand Wayne Convention Center’s future found the downtown Fort Wayne facility might not need what he called “more of the same.”

But it could use “more of something different” to meet the needs of expanding downtown development.

John Kaatz of Conventions, Sports & Leisure International in Minneapolis made the comments Thursday while presenting the results of the firm’s $58,000 study of the convention center’s future during a meeting of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board.

Unlike most CIB meetings, not just board members attended. More than 60 people : officials from city and county government, businesses and nonprofit groups : came to get a glimpse of the report’s findings.

Several attendees said what drew their interest was how the CIB’s recently acquired “fast-food block” along West Jefferson Boulevard just west of Grand Wayne could be developed to resolve expansion issues arising from the convention center’s landlocked location. 

The 1.6-acre site was originally proposed for a downtown arena, but that idea was shelved after Mayor Tom Henry said there was lack of community support.

The CIB nonetheless purchased the property for $6 million last year.

Kaatz suggested a building with ballroom, exhibit and meeting space that he described as “an entertainment center” for the site. Flexible walls could allow indoor and outdoor events and performances, as well as free up interior space to allow the Grand Wayne to host more events at the same time.

Along with that building, Kaatz proposed green space or a plaza that could be used for diverse gatherings, including food trucks, and possibly building commercial space to generate income.

He also proposed connecting the space to Grand Wayne across Webster Street. That might be possible with a “soft structure” of tent-like material, he said.

He also said the site could become more of an attraction if it was expanded to more than three acres with collaboration with the Allen County Public Library. However, after the meeting, Kaatz said he had only brief conversations with library representatives.

But he was firm that the study did not find an immediate need for more exhibit or meeting space. However, the facility could use expanded “strategic space,” Kaatz said.

One option would be a bigger ballroom or multipurpose room that would extend the existing 10,000 square feet of ballroom to 16,000 to 20,000 square feet. That size would be closer to the average of 17,000 square feet in similar venues. 

According to Kaatz, a downside for the Grand Wayne is that occupancy has remained below the industry-desirable 50 percent level. Between 2014 and 2017, occupancy ranged from 30 to 35 percent each for its exhibit spaces, meeting rooms and ballrooms, the study found.

That suggests returning business, he said, but also “a mature building” with a flat growth curve.

The center would do better to market itself to more regional and medium-sized events rather than seek more large or national events, Kaatz said.

Another downside, he said: Much of Grand Wayne’s attendance comes from local events that don’t generate hotel stays or downtown spending dollars.

Demand for additional downtown hotels, once the under-construction Hampton Inn and Provenance Hotels’ proposed boutique property come online, probably won’t grow, he said.  

What Fort Wayne has going for it are a central location with about 18 million people within a reasonable drive and virtually no competition from comparably sized venues in northeast Indiana, Kaatz said.

And a survey of users found them highly satisfied, he pointed out. They frequently mentioned the quality of the service and staff, appreciating their knowledge, longevity and friendly helpfulness.

“That’s unusual in these surveys,” he said.

Bart Shaw, Grand Wayne’s executive director, said the board is forming a committee to review the study’s findings and report to the board.