UPDATED: Mayor Tom Henry delays plans for arena in downtown Fort Wayne

If making room for the now-dormant downtown arena would move Electric Works forward, developers say they are willing to consider it. (Courtesy illustration)
Randy Brown
Therese Brown
Eric Doden

Results of a $49,000 study have convinced Mayor Tom Henry to put plans for a new $105 million downtown arena and “event center” on indefinite hold.

“After much debate, study and deliberation, I’ve made the decision to delay further action by the City of Fort Wayne on the downtown event center project,” said Henry in a statement, citing a $39,000 report done in 2015 by Hunden Strategic Partners and the new report led by Victus Advisors that presented differing viewpoints on the right approach to a downtown arena.

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The Hunden report was largely optimistic, suggesting a 5,500-seat arena then expected to cost about $63 million would attract 186,100 in the first year and increase to 223,600 in year 10; create 169 jobs in the first year and a 20-year economic impact in new spending of $293 million and new taxes of $15.6 million.

Victus, on the other hand, projected annual attendance of 153,000 during the first three years — about half of it provided by the Mad Ants basketball team — before dropping to 127,000 per year. Management structure was also key, Victus noted, concluding that “long-term it is estimated that a new downtown event center, if operated in competition with the War Memorial Coliseum, would only generate 10 new events each year.” The Coliseum is owned by Allen County, and city and county officials have not been a able to agree on creation of an “umbrella” organization that would operate both facilities.

County Commissioner Therese Brown said she had not read the full report but is “glad they’re taking a pause. There were too many hurdles to overcome at this point.”

“The process was thorough and showed the challenges a new arena would face. We agree with (Henry’s) decision,” Coliseum General Manager Randy Brown said.

But Greater Fort Wayne Inc. CEO Eric Doden, who had made the arena one of his chief economic development priorities, was disappointed. “We remain committed to the five bold projects, including the Event Center, because they are necessary for building a nationally recognized economy here in Allen County. The Event Center will drive foot traffic downtown year-round, much like Parkview Field does in the summer months, and help attract and retain talent. That said, we trust Mayor Henry’s leadership and will continue to work in partnership with him and his staff as we explore options for the downtown Event Center.”

If operated as a stand-alone facility, Victus projected, the arena would show an annual operating loss of about $469,000. That would drop to a $17,682 loss if operated by and attached to the Grand Wayne Center. If operated by a joint authority to reduce competition and improve efficiency, however, Victus predicted an annual operating surplus of $144,377. The arena was originally proposed to be built immediately to the west of the Grand Wayne Center.

Construction of the downtown arena would have generated 606 jobs, $32.7 million in economic impact and $485,259 in local income taxes. Longer-term, its annual economic impact was estimated at $3.75 million. Those estimates, Victus noted, “are relatively low” because of the “expected transfer of existing activity between existing venues and the downtown event center.”

The arena’s original mission was to avoid competition with the Coliseum, Embassy Theatre and other venues.

“A multi-use event center was envisioned to benefit the region by raising the bar for the Grand Wayne Center by expanding its marketable square footage, allowing us to pursue larger conventions and increasing out-of-town interest,” Henry said in the statement. “It was our hope that an event center would also serve as the home for several local collegiate basketball teams and our very own piece of the Indiana Pacers, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. The multi-use concept also would’ve provided an opportunity to increase top tier, mid-sized concerts, further developing our region as a point of destination.”

The News-Sentinel first reported some of Victus’ conclusions last week, suggesting the arena could face an uphill battle.