When Dan O’Connell moved to Fort Wayne in 1988 to head the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (now Visit Fort Wayne), he did so because he could see the potential in Fort Wayne and felt much of it had not yet been tapped. Now, almost three decades later, the city has exploded with options for both residents and visitors. While he’s happy with the growth, O’Connell also sees so much more on the horizon.
His arrival in Fort Wayne came after O’Connell left a similar position in St. Cloud, Minnesota where he had graduated from St. Cloud State University, part of the University of Minnesota network and a campus that O’Connell says compares to IPFW. His major had been marketing, and he quickly saw that he could apply that knowledge to helping to improve a community.
“While I was in school, I had an internship at the local Chamber of Commerce,” says O’Connell. “I saw how advertising and marketing could be more rewarding if it was used to help with community development. Making a destination better, whether it’s through ballparks or festivals, is an asset for both visitors and residents.”
O’Connell admits that the focus of the visitor’s bureau in St. Cloud involved a lot of fishing and snowmobiling, but he saw how much Fort Wayne had to offer and how a move here could benefit his career.
“There was a lot of potential here that the bureau wasn’t really capitalizing on or championing. At that time the Memorial Coliseum was just adding on the new Expo Center, and there was the Children’s Zoo, Science Central was coming along, and there was the Grand Wayne Center. There was a lot to offer.”
Of course, the addition of Parkview Field has helped grow the downtown area and brought more foot traffic to the businesses there, but O’Connell says the seeds of downtown’s revival pre-dates even the ballpark’s contribution.
“The Downtown Improvement District was already working to bring more businesses to downtown and making downtown cleaner, greener and friendlier. That was an important foundation block for all the things that followed, like the ballpark, the expanded library, the expansion of the convention center.”
That growth also helped the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to both move and re-brand itself Visit Fort Wayne. O’Connell says the changes have helped it grow and better serve the community.
“When we moved our offices from a small parking garage across from the Hilton into the corner building on Harrison, we were within walking distance of the Grand Wayne Center and many of the places we were working with. And with the move we decided we needed a new name, and other cities were beginning to incorporate ‘Visit,’ which made sense. When we were the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, people thought we were a government agency, which we’re not, or the convention center, which we’re not. At that same time, our online presence was exploding, and Visit Fort Wayne was already aligned with that.”
The main focus of O’Connell’s job is to bring people to Fort Wayne, and a few years ago that effort took a very personal turn. His brother John, a theater and directing veteran, was looking for a new place to call home. When the IPFW theater department was looking for a new chair following the death of Larry Life, John’s brother Dan was able to provide some valuable information that ultimately led to John’s relocation to IPFW – where he is now dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts – and Fort Wayne.
“Of course, my brother had come here regularly to visit my family during the holiday season, so he had spent time here. But when he was looking to move here, I was able to pitch the growth of IPFW, which had just become a Division I school and was adding a medical school and the Rhinehart Music Center, so there was great growth there and in the downtown area. But I was also able to tell him that there was an active gay community here. The gay community wasn’t reclusive, and I could tell him what an open community this is. People here are tolerant.”
O’Connell also notes how moderate the political landscape is here, not liking anything “ultra-conservative or ultra-liberal,” and that, while it sometimes takes awhile for the city’s residents to get on board with a new idea, once they do, they embrace it.
“Once we reach a consensus, this city acts and embraces it. That’s why we’re able to have the best ballpark in the country, the best genealogy center in the country. I was talking to someone the other day who said, ‘I’m so tired of hearing about your River Greenway! You have 60 miles of trails, and in Indy we only have 18.’ I love hearing things like that.”
On the horizon for O’Connell is to continue to lure more businesses and organizations into town for their conventions. He says the city’s affordability, not to mention the amenities it has to offer, have made it easier to bring events, like this summer’s National Scrabble Convention, into Fort Wayne. Visit Fort Wayne has also developed its social media presence, with more than 10,000 Facebook likes and 750,000 visits to their website. Those elements have helped draw more attention to everything Fort Wayne has to offer. O’Connell is also excited about the upcoming riverfront development project, and sees terrific potential for its possibilities.
“With a quarter-mile of riverfront area to work with, we can do almost anything. We can have a commercial area, but we can also incorporate a natural habitat with parks and picnic areas. We have a lot of riverfront to work with, so we can play to a lot of different tastes. We don’t have to put all our eggs in one basket.”
In the end, with all the changes and new developments that have taken place since O’Connell came to town all those years ago, he still likes to sell Fort Wayne with the same approach that made him want to call this city home. It’s a great place to raise a family.
“People say that all the time, right? That this is a great place to raise a family. And that was important to me at that time because I did have a young family, and the important factors were schools, parks, Friday Night Lights. But our social services are aimed at kids and our sports programs aim at kids. So those are the things that enticed me, and as a community leader, those are the assets to sell to other people.”
Thursday, April 27
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Community Unity — Community dinner, games and prizes, and neighborhood safety forum, 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Jennings Recreation Center, Fort Wayne, free, 427-6028
Issues and Ales — Panel of experts discuss important issues in the community with audience Q&A , 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits, Fort Wayne, free, 456-7005
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Chris Worth — Variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Fort Wayne Comedy Connection — Comedy at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Hubie Ashcraft — Acoustic at River View Tavern, Decatur, 7-10 p.m., no cover, 724-3500
Open Mic — Hosted by Mike Mowry at Pedal City, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 415-6167
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Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Pine Valley Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., no cover, 490-9464
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Karaoke at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 422-5055
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., ,
Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Karaoke with Rooster — Variety at By: Belle Haven, South Whitley, 8 p.m., no cover, 866-716-9243
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Shut Up and Sing — Karaoke at Duesy's Sports Bar, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 483-5681
Three Rivers Karaoke — at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-1311
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Little Shop of Horrors — IPFW Department of Theatre performance of Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical comedy, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, April 26-29, Williams Theatre, IPFW, Fort Wayne, $5-$18, 481-6555
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37th National Print Exhibition — Juried exhibition featuring contemporary printmakers from around the nation, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
41st SOCA Student Exhibition — Works from students currently enrolled at USF’s School of Creative Arts, daily thru April 30, Weatherhead Gallery, USF Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
Jan Krist-Finkbeiner — Exhibition of ceramic reliefs, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
Kathy Funderburg & Diane Schafer-King — Acrylic paintings (Funderburg) and works in marbled paper and fabric (Schaefer-King), Monday-Saturday thru April 29, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Rhoda Gerig: The Hope of Eagles — Photographic images of eagles, daily thru June 4, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
SOCA Graduate Program: Student Highlights — Juried exhibition of works by students enrolled in USF’s School of Creative Arts graduate program, Monday-Friday thru April 30, Lupke Gallery, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Exhibition of works by IPFW graduation seniors, daily thru May 3 , Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery, Main Library, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Senior thesis projects from Bachelor of Fine Arts candidates Brenda Drayer (sculpture), Derek Hibbs (printmaking), Ellen Mensch (painting), Nathaniel Morris (sculpture) and Kyle Snodgrass (sculpture), daily thru May 7, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring Palette — New original works by more than 50 nationally recognized artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru April 30, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568