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Increasingly, downtown seen as the place to be

June 1st, 2012

News Coverage:

Increasingly, downtown seen as the place to be

RICK FARRANT - rfarrant@fwbusiness.com

Friday, Jun. 01, 2012 at 5:45am

Ben Hall, general manager of Don Hall’s Old Gas House Restaurant, believes conservative pricing, good service and continuing interest in river-deck dining led to a 10- to 15-percent increase in revenue last year for the downtown eatery.

A growing awareness of downtown Fort Wayne amenities also played a role, and that, he said, was “no small piece of things.”

“Take a Saturday afternoon,” Hall said. “There was a time when you could have stood at Calhoun and Berry streets and shot a cannon south and probably not taken out three people. Now, you have activity.”

Not all downtown businesses have done as well as the Gas House, and a few have closed within the last year. But some new businesses have emerged and Downtown Improvement District President Richard Davis said retail sales figures seem to bear out a strengthening commercial sector. The downtown, loosely defined for sales-tax receipt purposes as the 46802 ZIP code, registered $190 million in gross taxable sales in 2011, according to Davis. That’s a 9.2-percent increase from the $174 million registered in 2010 and the largest single-year increase since the beginning of the recession.

“It’s the rising economic tide,” Davis said. “We’re definitely benefiting from the fact that incomes aren’t as stretched as they were and that people are a little more secure about their jobs than they were during the depths of the recession.”

Davis also said downtown commercial developments like Parkview Field, anticipated residential growth with the Harrison and Anthony Wayne Building projects, and a DID Clean & Green program are changing people’s perceptions about the downtown.

“The dramatic impact is in here,” he said, pointing to his head, “more so than the actual landscape. The mental landscape people now have in their minds of downtown is a place where it’s safe to walk, it’s clean and it’s friendly.

“The environmental piece (Clean & Green) is the fundamental piece on which everything else is built,” he said. “That is, you can do a lot of neat and interesting things downtown, but if the trash cans are overflowing, that’s the impression people are going to get.”

Under the Clean & Green program, DID: removes trash and litter that doesn’t find its way into garbage bins; keeps pedestrian paths at intersections free of snow; and assists with flower planters in DID’s 91-block, 445-acre district. DID also has a graffiti abatement program.

DID’s efforts recently got mixed reviews from the Fort Wayne City Council, which allocates $150,000 annually to the organization. DID gets another $50,000 from the Allen County Council, about $300,000 in special assessments from roughly 270 commercial property owners and another $50,000 in private contributions and sponsorships.

Two city councilman reportedly questioned whether Davis, who became DID president in April 2008, had gone far enough to promote the downtown, reach out to businesses and provide a fully functioning website.

Davis said he agreed with some of the criticism and quickly met with some business owners who he said had complained to the council that their interaction with DID had been insufficient. He said he also has contracted with an outside party to update and improve the website.

“We take seriously anything we hear from the council because they are in some ways the channels for public opinion,” Davis said. “And the (DID) board certainly wants me to be in front of as many of the district’s (830 businesses) as possible. They certainly would like me to be in front of all of them all of the time.”

Despite the concerns, Davis said he believes DID’s various programs to draw people downtown are working — programs such as Lunch on the Square at One Summit Square held June-August and seasonal trolley shopping tours.

The addition of Parkview Field in 2009, which draws about 400,000 people downtown during baseball season, has also helped considerably, although Davis said he isn’t sure exactly how much of the sales-volume hike can be attributed to the minor-league baseball stadium.

Nevertheless, one downtown business owner is thrilled with how the growth of downtown commerce has helped his enterprises.

David Fikes, president of OfficeOne 2 Go and OfficeOne Solutions, began building his businesses downtown five years ago and said the synergy of the city’s core has been exactly what he had hoped it would be.

“We started our (companies) down here with the intent to grow with downtown,” he said, “and that is just what is happening. Being partnered with DID has given us a lot of exposure to other downtown businesses. Life is good in the big city.”

Hall, who is a vice chair of the DID board in addition to managing the 54-year-old Gas House, is equally pleased: “We’re miles ahead downtown from where we were five, six years ago.”

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