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COLUMN

It's been grand for 'father' of Fort Wayne convention industry

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The 'Fort Report'

This week's show will feature Mayor Tom Henry and National Rifle Association instructor Wayne Doenges, who will discuss calls for gun control since the Newtown, Conn., fatal shootings. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.

Bob Lister plans retirement in what could be record year for Grand Wayne Center

Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 12:01 am

This may turn out to be the busiest year in the Grand Wayne Convention Center's history.

But the man who was guiding its fortunes even before the doors opened 28 years ago this month – an event that paved the way for Harrison Square and other downtown improvements – won't be around to celebrate.

“It's time. I'll be 65 in April and I've been in this business a long time. But I'm proud of the building. It did what it was supposed to do from the start: get people who would not normally come to Fort Wayne to spend money here,” said Bob Lister, who before retiring in July will have compiled an impressive but largely unknown record of helping create a local convention business that began haltingly but now attracts more than 200,000 visitors each year, at least half of them from out of town.

Because 90 percent of the Grand Wayne's events are private, that kind of activity has not always translated into broad public awareness of the role Lister and the center have played in the local economy in general and downtown redevelopment in particular. And while it's true that Lister has not been directly involved in much of that redevelopment, it's also true that Parkview Field and other successes may not have happened if the Grand Wayne Center had been the failure some early critics predicted it would be.

In fact, when ground was broken back in April 1983 – the same year Lister arrived from La Crosse, Wis. – Mayor Win Moses Jr. noted that for a decade plans had “been drawn and redrawn, the land cleared and left vacant and the dream, of a convention center never realized – until today.” And even then, in the midst of an economy that featured 20 percent interest rates and the impending loss of the city's 8,000-employee International Harvester truck plant, there was no guarantee the city could reinvent itself as a convention destination.

But the center, built in part on the former site of the Jefferson Theater at 120 W. Jefferson Blvd., not only survived but justified a $40 million investment that in 2005 enlarged the facility from 100,000 to 225,000 square feet.

Lister guided and championed that expansion, saying the Grand Wayne was losing 165 events a year because of lack of space. And although he acknowledged that Fort Wayne remains primarily a state and regional market, Lister said the facility will host no less than nine national events among the more than 50 conventions scheduled this year. That's more than double the pre-expansion total.

Lister would credit his staff for much of that success, including Director of Sales and Marketing Marcy McKinley and heir apparent and Director of Operations Bart Shaw, who came to Fort Wayne from Dayton last year.

The wave of downtown improvements begun by the Grand Wayne, McKinley said, has made the facility more attractive to would-be guests – many of whom visit Parkview Field, restaurants, the expanded library and other attractions that didn't exist when Moses turned that first shovel of dirt.

And Shaw, who said downtown Dayton has faced many of the same challenges Fort Wayne has experienced, plans to build on that success through the use of online “social media” that also didn't exist when Lister took the job.

Not that Lister's job has always been easy.

One of the keys to the expanded Grand Wayne's viability was the addition of a second high-quality downtown hotel to complement the Hilton that had opened shortly after the convention center did in 1985. But groundbreaking for the 250-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel, originally scheduled for October 2008 didn't take place until the following June – a delay that for a time caused Lister to fear some big-ticket conventions might go elsewhere. The hotel didn't open until August 2010.

And the Hilton faced early financial troubles, with a 1987 foreclosure forcing the city to make good on its $3 million backup commitment.

Finances have been an issue at times for the Grand Wayne, too. This year's budget, for example, anticipates a deficit of about $250,000, but Lister said that reflects an annual payment of the $2.5 million that the Grand Wayne's board pledged toward construction of the hotel.

Having weathered lean years that saw many companies scale back traditional Christmas parties and other events, Lister said there are signs that a slowly growing economy will give a similar boost to the convention business here and elsewhere.

In fact, Shaw said it's possible the Grand Wayne will have to consider another expansion one day. That would be a fitting tribute to the man who was there at the beginning, even if he's too modest to say so.

From combatant to peacemaker

During her four years on City Council, Liz Brown was not exactly known for avoiding disputes.

Now Brown, who did not seek re-election in 2011, will be trying to settle them.

An attorney, Brown has begun the Brown Mediation Group, which specializes in civil and domestic mediation intended to prevent or settle lawsuits and avoid arguments during divorce.

“My time on council helped me see both sides, and that's what mediation is all about,” she said.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.