March 30, 2017
By the time Bill Brown assumed his role as President of Downtown Improvement District (DID) in 2012, he already had a long and distinguished career in boosting the profile of the downtown area as a business leader.
His road to that resume began in a much different way. After moving around in his early years - living in Idaho, Washington and Colorado - Brown settled in Fort Wayne before his 10th birthday and has called it home ever since. A graduate of North Side High School and then a student at the University of St. Francis and IPFW, Brown first considered studying liberal arts before shifting his direction sharply and studying electrical engineering technology. He left college before graduating to start his career in the electrical trade, and by the early 1980s co-owned a business downtown with his wife.
But his focus was on more than his own business, and he began looking for ways to bring more businesses to downtown and more people back to the Fort Wayne area. His own brother returned from Atlanta, and he sought to convince others to follow that path and, rather than giving up on Fort Wayne, return to the city and be part of its rebirth. That can-do attitude served him not only as a business leader but also as a county council member and county commissioner. By time he came to DID, he already had credibility among the Fort Wayne community members who shared his vision for a new era in the city. His years since joining DID have given him new and exciting ways to continue that journey.
"I wanted to be a pioneer in bringing back downtown," he explains. "My wife and I were in business together and wanted to get involved with community development projects. The question was, how do you help develop that community?
"So we moved our business from an industrial park and bought and restored a building downtown and made it an incubator space. We had part of the building and then others were able to move in there too."
That building on Lafayette is now home to a yoga studio and One Lucky Guitar, among other businesses, and just one of several success stories in downtown's revitalization which can be traced to Brown's determination and commitment. Even before his tenure as president of DID, when he was a DID board member, Brown helped launch a new event downtown that has become a community favorite.
"Buskerfest has been one of the bigger successes we've had in the last several years," he says. "I was at a board meeting and said one day, 'You know, you can't open a guitar case in downtown Fort Wayne and play for tips.' I didn't do all of it alone, of course. Courtney Tritch was still working with us as our event director then and did a lot of research. They had a similar event in Toronto, and we modeled Buskerfest after that. It's become really popular. People just love it. It has a cool vibe to it."
Among his other accomplishments and contributions has been the Ride and Share program which he says goes a long way to one of his other goals.
"I'd like for it to be possible for people to live in downtown Fort Wayne and not own a car," he says. "When we were first looking at some possibilities, it was pre-Uber, but now we have both Uber and Lyft available downtown. And we have a good bus service."
Two of his proudest accomplishments go beyond things that are observable to Fort Wayne citizens who are spending time downtown. Instead they go to the necessary issues needed to maintain the growth of the city, the behind-the-scenes negotiating that keeps a community vital.
"I'm very proud of the fact that Downtown Improvement was reauthorized in 2015. Seventy percent of the property owners voted to allow us to operate for another 10 years. It's almost unheard of to have people willing to pay more taxes, but the fact that we were reauthorized is a validation of the work that so many people are doing to continue to bring more businesses and people to the downtown area.
"We have also had the creation of the Downtown Development Trust," he continues. "And that functions as a real estate holding company which allows the trust to buy real estate which gets some of these new development projects up and running quickly. The trust was able to buy the land for the new Ash Centre and the buildings for The Landing project and will be part of the new riverfront development too."
In the last 10 years the downtown area has seen an explosion in activities, led of course by the arrival of Parkview Field, which in turn led to more restaurants and other activities in the area. Brown says restaurant owners hope for a day when 10,000 people will be downtown, potentially bringing 200 people to each restaurant. He says that day may not be far off.
"We don't want to cut the pie into more pieces," he says. "We want to grow a bigger pie. We want a mind set of abundance so that more people are involved with and want to come to downtown."
With a growing number of residential opportunities downtown, the revitalization of the historic West Central neighborhood, an explosion in the number of festivals and events in the heart of the city and places like Fort Wayne Outfitters and the Hall's Gas House Deck bringing people back to the rivers in the last decade, Brown thinks the sky's the limit for downtown.
"In addition to events and new businesses, we're also interested in providing a safe, clean and welcoming environment for people downtown, so the beautification efforts have also been very important. I'm proud that downtown is a place where people feel comfortable spending time. I love working with people to create good outcomes for downtown and being a facilitator in the process. It's great to see the things you do come together, and I'm proud of the team of people we have working to bring vibrancy to downtown. It's a great group of folks. It just jazzes me up to see what's happening."