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Fort Wayne can brag of several local businesses which have brought the city into the spotlight, providing economic development opportunities which have helped raise the profile and built the region for greater growth in the future. One of the best examples of that is Sweetwater Sound, a corporate partner for many of the local arts organizations and a business which has boosted not only the economy of Fort Wayne, but the cool quotient, too. Providing instruments and gear to some of the finest musicians in the world is just one way that Sweetwater has put this city on the map.
But there’s been a lot more than music coming out of Sweetwater over the years, thanks to the leadership and generosity of Chuck Surack, founder and president of Sweetwater Sound and several of its subsidiaries, including Sweet Cars and Sweet Aviation. Beyond the pleasure that these businesses bring, the reach into the community – the constant effort to give back – is why Chuck Liddell was given the Special Whammy (now named the Liddell Award) in 2009. Surack’s attitude about the award underscores why he won the award in the first place.
“I was totally surprised – it was a big honor. I love whatzup, so it was great to be recognized. But I’ve been so blessed that I couldn’t imagine not doing what I’m doing. It’s both a personal and a corporate responsibility to give back.”
The impact of Sweetwater on the local economy itself is reason for pride. Having opened their new and expanded facility in 2006 with 200 employees, Sweetwater has nearly tripled that total, now employing 550 in that once spacious building. Now only a few years later, there are already growing pains and plans for further expansion which will likely be completed by 2014. Surack says the growth will include doubling the warehouse where merchandise demands have burdened their current space and tripling the sales people to stay on top of the growth.
“What I’m most excited about is the growth of the music academy,” says Surack. “We’ll now have a bigger dedicated space to do that so we can train more musicians and give more opportunities and be able to grow our offerings in the future.”
Sweetwater’s Music Academy is at the heart of what the company brings to the talented musical community here as well as those who have long dreamed of developing their musical abilities. The Sweetwater Jazz Project, a quartet of young musicians still in high school and college, recently traveled to New York City to play at the juried jazz festival. Other similar efforts have helped augment some of what the public schools have had to offer under current budget constraints.
“The Sweetwater Jazz Project is just one example of where we try to help out, and it was great helping to send them to New York City,” says Surack. “But our customers and students are all over the map. We provide lessons for young people, we have business people who have always wanted to learn to play an instrument, as well as retirees who now have the time to take on something they haven’t been able to while they were working. Of course we also have the professional musicians who use our equipment so that’s a lot of fun.
“I think one of my favorite things is our rock camps every summer and what we’re able to do with those. They spend a week together, and these young people don’t know each other at all. But by the end of that week, they’ve formed their bands and named them, have put together some music and a concert and have had the experience of recording together. I feel like we’re fulfilling people’s dreams, and that’s a great feeling.”
Surack also reaches out to help other area organizations, often underwriting expenses for performances (such as with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic) or helping to defray costs for needed technological upgrades, as they did when they covered the initial software costs for the Arts Tix ticketing system which Arts United launched in 2012. And Surack isn’t limiting himself to just the arts when giving.
“I try to support a lot of the local musical and arts events, but there are a lot of other, more pressing human needs that have to be addressed too. I am absolutely dumbfounded that in a city like Fort Wayne so many people go hungry every week. Associated Churches run out of food and can’t provide as much as they need to the area churches and food banks. There is such a huge need for help in those areas, and we try to do as much as we can to help out. Unfortunately we can’t do everything so we don’t get into local sports as much since there are other to do that. We might sponsor a local team or something, but generally we focus as much as we can on other areas where we’re in a position to help.”
Sweetwater’s continued growth assures that future help will continue and while more jobs will certainly be created, the increase in status and profile within the community will allow for more of the community assistance which Fort Wayne has come to expect – and greatly appreciate – from Sweetwater Sound and its president. Surack promises not only more space at their present location but also a few fun elements, like a museum to display older technology, adding to the educational component so intrinsic to their mission. As seems to be the case with all of these special Whammy winners, the award, while deeply appreciated, does not spell an end to a remarkable career of giving to the community, but rather it fuels the fire in people like Chuck Surack who are always looking for new ways to lend a hand.