TinCaps spark a Fort Wayne renaissance
By Benjamin Hill | MiLB.com
Like so many Rust Belt cities of the Midwest, Fort Wayne, Indiana, was devastated in the 1980s by the exodus of its top blue-collar employers. In the post-industrial era, a once-thriving and robust downtown became a shell of its former self.
More than three decades later, though, Fort Wayne is in the midst of a renaissance. Parkview Field, the home of the Fort Wayne TinCaps, is a big reason why. Since opening in 2009, Parkview Field has become a model for what a downtown ballpark can and should be: a facility that redefines the landscape while serving as a catalyst for further development.
Parkview Field is the centerpiece of the Harrison Square mixed-use development project, which also includes apartments, retail and office space, as well as a parking garage and the Courtyard Marriott hotel that looms beyond the left field wall. The project, approved by the Fort Wayne City Council in 2007, provided $25 million of the publicly owned ballpark's $31.5 million cost. The rest was contributed by ownership group Hardball Capital. Parkview Field replaced Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1993 and hosted the Fort Wayne Wizards through the 2008 season. (The team rebranded as the TinCaps in conjunction with the opening of its new home.)
Dan Watson is the director of marketing for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., an organization that bills itself as "the single point of contact for economic growth and business services in Fort Wayne." He notes that in the decade prior to 2007, Fort Wayne had been the recipient of $2 million in private downtown investment. Since then, however, there has been over $300 million in private investment; in 2017, Allen County (of which Fort Wayne is part) issued over $1 billion in building permits for the first time ever. It's safe to say that this period of growth wouldn't have occurred without Parkview Field. For example, Ash Brokerage CEO Tim Ash recently told Input Fort Waynethat his company's $29 million downtown corporate headquarters "would not have happened had it not been for the Parkview Field/Harrison development."
"It's pretty incredible how much has happened in the last 10 years," said Watson, who took a circuitous route to his current position with Greater Fort Wayne Inc. The Northwest Ohio native first came to Fort Wayne in the fall of 2008, having been hired by the TinCaps as their lead broadcaster. He called the action during the team's first three seasons at Parkview Field, and then relocated to Columbus, Ohio, to work as a radio station sports reporter. After getting laid off from that job in 2012, he returned to Fort Wayne. He began working for Greater Fort Wayne Inc. in 2017, while also occasionally working for the TinCaps as their official scorer.
"When I came here to interview [for the TinCaps] in 2008, they took me downtown. Steel was starting to go up [for Parkview Field], but, really, there was nothing. You had Lincoln Financial, but that was about it. Now, they've got the farmers market on Saturdays. They've got coffee shops open seven days a week. They've got restaurants and bars. [Parkview Field] was the thing that started it all, and now people see Fort Wayne in a different light in terms of this being a good place to raise a family, where there's a low cost of living and a high quality of life."
Public funding for a professional sports facility is almost always a controversial proposition. In some cases the projected economic benefits fail to materialize, and in almost all cases there are elected officials and a sizable segment of the community who feel that the money would be better spent elsewhere.
"It was a battle to get this place built, with the local elected officials," Watson said. "Even when we moved downtown, people still had a lot of reservations. 'Did they really need this?' Because [Memorial Stadium] had been built less than 20 years before. But that ballpark was falling apart -- it was just that nobody saw the parts that were falling apart. ... And people didn't understand how transformative this was going to be. But once we had an open house two weeks before [the 2009 season], people got it. It was now a snowball rolling in the right direction."
As for why Parkview Field was successful as an economic catalyst, Watson had several overlapping explanations.
"Downtown Fort Wayne was an untapped market, but nobody wanted to be the first to jump in. The ballpark gave people a reason to be downtown after 5 p.m., 70 nights a year and more, including the non-baseball events," he said. "Once there was more activity and foot traffic, more businesses started moving in. ... What it also did was, it showcased the best that Fort Wayne has. I don't think people realized there is an incredible view of the skyline here.
"I'm biased, but the staff has done a great job of continually raising the bar and improving the fan experience. I know with a new park, there's typically the three-to-four-year honeymoon period and then things tail off, but they've been able to keep the momentum and even grow it."
Indeed, over the last two seasons the TinCaps have trailed only the Dayton Dragons in Midwest League attendance. Their total attendance of 413,701 in 2016 -- Parkview Field's eighth season -- set a new franchise record. Meanwhile, the city of Fort Wayne continues to think ambitiously. Watson and his Greater Fort Wayne Inc. coworkers are touting projects geared toward further increasing the city's population, average wage and overall gross domestic product, such as the construction of a year-round event center as well as the conversion of a former General Electric campus into a mixed-use "innovation, energy and culture district." Watson compares this project to Durham's American Tobacco Campus, located in close proximity to Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
"The ballpark changed the way the community sees itself. There's a greater sense of pride now," he said. "Back in 2009, I think there was an element of, 'Well, we're just little old Fort Wayne. The old ballpark was good enough. Why do we need this?' Now when people come to the stadium for the first time, they see that skyline view and it feels big-time. We hear them say, 'I can't believe we have something like this in Fort Wayne.' So the ballpark has caused a huge shift in people's perceptions of what's possible here. We can do big things that cause the whole country to sit up and take notice."