FORT WAYNE – When officials broke ground May 1, 2003, on a huge expansion of Grand Wayne Center, there were questions as to whether the $39 million project to more than double the convention centers size was a good idea.
There were questions over whether the project – as officials claimed – would spark a downtown renewal.
Some people underestimate the leverage this can make, then-Mayor Graham Richard said at the groundbreaking. One expansion does not make a redevelopment of the downtown area, but in conjunction with the other projects, its the start of a new future.
A decade later, that future has arrived, with a downtown that has been revitalized, even in a sagging economy.
The convention center that was turning away events because it was too small or already booked, is now drawing national conventions instead of just state and regional events.
I think were looking at the best year weve ever had, Executive Director Bob Lister said.
And that is saying something, because 2012 was the best year Grand Wayne Center ever had.
Grand Wayne hosted 46 conventions last year and expects to have up to 55 this year.
And theyre getting larger, said Marcy McKinley, the centers director of sales and marketing. Adding that second hotel, the ballpark and all the other improvements really makes a difference.
Officials say features like Parkview Field draw more people to Grand Wayne, and vice versa.
We have clients who wait to schedule their events until they know the baseball schedule, and theyll base it on when the teams going to be here, McKinley said.
State and regional events have been a mainstay of Grand Waynes repertoire, but 2013 will see at least eight national events, including the Great Lakes Championship Cheerleading Competition and the Brewery Collectibles Club of America, each of which is expecting to draw 2,000 people.
The cheerleading event will be here two days, the brewery collectibles group for six.
The Ikasucon Convention – a Japanese animation and pop culture convention – used to be held in Cincinnati, but 2013 will be its seventh year in Fort Wayne.
It draws about 1,300 people over four days.
The Indiana Farm Bureaus annual convention was here in 2009 but left for the posh J.W. Marriott in Indianapolis.
This year, it returns – with its nearly 1,500 attendees – to Grand Wayne Center.
The largest convention was just completed: The Indiana Music Educators Association, which brought 3,000 people for three days and included concerts and events all over the city. McKinley said that convention is already booked here for 2014, and Grand Wayne is bidding on 2015 and 2016, as well.
Grand Wayne has also found a niche in the religious conference market. The center has always done well with state and regional religious gatherings, but this year adds the Missionary Churchs Biennial General Conference, with 1,200 attendees for six days.
But the event convention officials may be most proud of is the Vera Bradley Fall 2013 Premiere, which is a private event the handbag maker holds to introduce its new fall lines to its retail partners.
Were premiering all the new products to our retailers, Vera Bradley spokeswoman Melissa Schenkel said. Its our opportunity to share our ideas on merchandising with our retail partners, and show them how to make our products look best on their shelves.
The event will bring hundreds of people over four days.
How important is the event? The last premiere was held at the Loews Resort in Orlando, Fla. Grand Wayne Center sent staff to the event to see it firsthand, so they would know exactly how Vera Bradley officials want the event to run.
They do it all first-class, Lister said. They expect the level of service they can get from a resort hotel.
Lister said they expect Vera Bradley to have carpenters spending three or four days in the convention center before the event building three-sided storefronts.
They build stores inside the hall, he said, including three walls, a ceiling and floor.
Yes, we will build examples of what wed love it to look like, Schenkel said. We also share preliminary research on what we expect to (sell) really well so our retailers can write the best order possible.
Grand Wayne officials said they view the Vera Bradley event as a huge endorsement of their convention center and of downtown Fort Wayne. Schenkel said that having Grand Wayne Center made Vera Bradleys decision to come home to Fort Wayne after holding premieres in Las Vegas, Boston, Orlando and Dallas an easy one.
Vera Bradley is proud of our hometown, and were happy to show it off, Schenkel said.
She said having the premiere in the city also gives Vera Bradley a chance to give tours of its facilities to its retailers, and because many of them also carry DeBrand Chocolates, they will likely visit there, as well.
Investment pays off
Dan OConnell, president of Visit Fort Wayne, said Grand Wayne Center is fulfilling its mission of bringing visitors to Fort Wayne.
The investment the city put into the convention center is paying off, OConnell said. Its bringing hundreds of thousands of people downtown.
In addition, it has also created first-quality facilities that local groups and businesses can use, and the visitors it brings has made a more vibrant restaurant scene that residents enjoy year-round.
When people come from somewhere else, they want home-grown restaurants; they dont want to go to a chain, he said. That really helps a small-business guy, the Mad Anthonys, the Casas, the Oyster Bars. Thats what people are looking for.