Rivers create a pull on public, businesses
By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
For years, local officials and river advocates referred to area rivers as “under-utilized,” but increased activity on the waterways suggests the current has changed course.
Increased demand for riverside activities and riverfront development efforts are setting the stage for a wave of businesses that want to be where the action is, Fort Wayne officials say.
When Cara Hall opened Fort Wayne Outfitters & Bike Depot in 2007, many people had negative perceptions of the city’s river, she said. The business offers canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals.
However, all it takes to change someone’s mind is to get them out on the water, she said.
“Everybody who goes out and paddles comes in and says ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea how beautiful it was here. What a great resource we have,’” she said.
That attitude has spread through word of mouth and has been a driving force for growth, Hall said.
“In 10 years, [the business has] more than doubled. We’ve added to our rental fleet each year, and I’ll still have busy days when all our boats are out on the water and I have people waiting,” she said.
These days, she can feel the energy surrounding the river. That energy is only going to continue to grow, she said. As riverfront development progresses, she suspects businesses will try to get as close to the water as they can.
The Deck at the Gas House, which provides outdoor dining overlooking the St. Marys River, is a great example of the demand for that sort of venue, Hall said.
“People want to be out there. It’s always crowded and there’s always a wait,” she said.
In addition to the popularity of brick and mortar businesses on the riverbank, there has also been an increase in the number of passenger vessels on the river. A new 54-foot canal boat named “Sweet Breeze” debuted on the river last week. The boat holds up to 40 people and can be rented for private parties.
Setting the stage
Groundbreaking for the first phase of riverfront development is scheduled to take place June 29 and is slated to be completed by the end of next year with a grand opening planned for the spring of 2019, according to Mark Becker, deputy director for riverfront development for the Fort Wayne parks department.
The riverfront park between Harrison Street and the Historic Wells Street Bridge will be called Promenade Park. Becker said the development will set the table for private investment to happen all around the park.
On the river itself, a new watercraft will help clear the way for recreational activity. The city of Fort Wayne and Allen County have purchased a 30-foot-long river barge with a crane attachment, which will start doing some maintenance on the rivers later this summer.
The barge will help remove log jams that frequently occur at the base of bridges. The log jams are not just unsightly – they can present a safety hazard, said Greg Leatherman, director of community development for the city of Fort Wayne.
“If you have more people on the water, sometimes those log jams can break loose, and they become a real hazard so if you keep them from building up to a critical mass, you reduce the chances that anyone could be hurt in a kayak or canoe,” he said.
In addition to cleaning up the rivers and developing public space, city officials also hope to acquire property along the river for future use.
Similar efforts are being made in Bluffton where city officials are looking to revitalize its downtown. The river is a key feature of downtown. Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis said acquiring property on the riverbank will allow the city to enhance the area.
“That way, we have control over what goes there and what doesn’t. Secondly, we can do some conservation measures and actually take care of the riverbank,” he said.
The river isn’t quite deep enough for bigger boats in the summer, but you can find people kayaking along in nice weather, Ellis said. Construction of the Kehoe Park Amphitheater on the river’s north bank has also attracted people to the riverside venue for concerts and other outdoor events.
Pattern of development
The hope is that private investment will follow public investment in the city’s river, trail way and infrastructure, and that business development will happen a block or two off either side of the river, Ellis said.
Leatherman anticipates a similar pattern of development to occur in Fort Wayne. It’s likely to start out with restaurants and bars, but he envisions residential living spaces in the future.
“You create a public space, a public venue that attracts people, and the private sector will want to invest right next to it,” he said. “We have no doubt that that’s what will happen in the next year or so as people begin to see the impact and the draw that this park’s going to have for people downtown.”