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"Crazy Entrepreneurs" help spur downtown development
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
There’s a section of downtown Fort Wayne which, on any given weekday afternoon around lunchtime, can make you think you’re experiencing that vibrant downtown atmosphere a lot of people seem to want here.
Start at Harrison Street, go up West Wayne for one block, then turn left on Calhoun. In that relatively short space, you’ve got Cindy’s Diner, Toscani’s, Double Dragon, the Loaf and Ladel, the Pint and Slice, and the Dash-In. During the past few months, this area has been fairly hopping around lunchtime. The restaurants are crowded, with a few places offering tables outdoors.
J.K. O’Donnell’s, an Irish pub started by local businessman Scot Glaze and his wife Melissa, (Dennis and Jeremy Rohrs and Kim Jacobs are also partners) just opened on West Wayne, across the street from Toscani’s Pizzeria. It’s perhaps one of the most well-publicized restaurant openings in the area in recent memory, but it’s only the latest addition to the Wayne/Calhoun “L” which has seemed to make some positive change in downtown Fort Wayne, all thanks to what Glaze calls “crazy entrepreneurs.”
Glaze is the president of Fort Wayne Metals, a locally-based company that produces medical grade wire. Business often takes Glaze to other cities and other countries (the inspiration for the Irish pub came from a place in Castelbar, Ireland, where Fort Wayne Metals has facilities), and he found himself loving the urban environment he found in other towns. “When you look at Fort Wayne, we just don’t have that,” he says. “I don’t think people in Fort Wayne really know what they’re missing.”
Like a lot of people, Glaze had followed plans for downtown development for years. He watched the blueprints get drawn up, heard the ideas bounced back and forth, followed the feasibility studies. And like a lot of people, he found himself frustrated by the seeming lack of progress. “Two years ago a lot of people were saying ‘All you ever do is plan and no one ever does anything,’”Glaze says.
He was part of a trip to Greenville, South Carolina, where he saw results of that city’s downtown development initiative. Glaze realized two things about Greenville’s transformation of its downtown. The first was that the entire project took about 20 years. “There was a consistency of vision there,” Glaze says. “Year-by-year and administration-to administration, they seemed to hold on to that vision.”
The second was that some of the most exciting projects were launched by what the people in Greenville jokingly referred to as “crazy entrepreneurs” — people with the financing and the passion to invest in projects that traditional developers felt was too big of a risk.
But Glaze, a life-long resident of the area, liked the idea, and with his wife Melissa bought and renovated several downtown apartments at the property on West Wayne. Glaze was familiar with the building and renovation process through his company, and he was also familiar with taking advantage of any incentives offered by the city, such as façade grants.
Scott and Melissa wanted a store or restaurant on the street level, just like the downtown areas in many of the cities they admired. Glaze said he approached several people — developers, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs — about doing something with the space, but he heard the usual objections. “I had people who had bought buildings downtown and said the property doesn’t appreciate down there,” Glaze recalls. “Someone said they had bought a building and lost money on it every year they owned it. They talked about problems with parking and the inability to keep any retail or consumer type business downtown. They felt like you just couldn’t make money downtown.”
But the Glaze’s went ahead anyway (“I’m kind of bullheaded,” he says). The idea of an Irish pub came later, but Glaze says that from the start his intent was to do something downtown.
It’s a sentiment he shares with Mike Harris, the owner of Toscani’s across the street. Harris and his wife Julie opened Toscani’s in February, 2006, and heard many of the same objections. “That’s part of the reason we’ve got the flying pigs is here,” Harris says, referring to some of the decorations. “People said we’d have a restaurant down here when pigs fly.”
Like Glaze, Harris says he simply wanted to have his business downtown. “I can remember downtown when I was a kid, and remember that this was the place to be,” says Harris, who was in construction before opening Toscani’s. “I figured, take one step and see what happens. We’ve been pretty successful so far. But my plans were to come down here long before any of this other stuff (Harrison Square) started happening.”
Harris laughs when asked if he considers himself a “crazy entrepreneur.” “I think you have to be to get in the restaurant business,” he says. “It’s got its moments, let me tell you.”
Glaze, Harris and other business owners in that section of downtown seem to see the advantages of growing the market downtown as a whole. “I’d like to see another three or four restaurants come on this street,” Harris says. “There’s room for everybody.”
“We’re trying to build a little bit of an ambiance, make people feel like they’re in a vibrant city and it’s fun to be there,” Glaze adds.
Glaze even says he’s for the city establishing a river district downtown. “The river district license is sight and ownership specific, so it isn’t marketable the way a normal liquor license is,” he says. “So, I saw absolutely no downside to that. I think people in areas in close vicinity saw it as a threat to their business. I disagree. I think the more businesses you have down here — and I’m thinking restaurants — the more places you have in the downtown area, the stronger downtown will be, the more people come downtown, and the better it will be for the whole area.”
He hopes, however, that if a river district is established, it’ll leave room for some local flavor. “There’s a lot of chain restaurants that have great food and great atmosphere. But you go down on Calhoun and go to the Oyster Bar, or you go to Club Soda, those places really have an ambiance, and it’s the ownership and the management that creates that. I really value that. If I’m traveling, those are the kind of places I want to go to. There are too many cool places to discover to bother with the other kind.”
As noted above, J.K. O’Donnell’s has had one of the most highly publicized restaurant openings that Fort Wayne has seen in a long time, and as such has drawn attention to the restaurant’s founders as downtown pioneers of sorts. Glaze is quick to point out that J.K. O’Donnell’s is hardly the first, just the latest. There are plenty of people looking for investment opportunities in downtown Fort Wayne. “The investment I’ve put in to J.K. O’Donnell’s is pretty extensive and I hope it’ll be a success,” Glaze says. “But regardless, it’s going to be there, and I hope it’ll be a staple of that neighborhood, and I hope there will be something that pops up right next to it, and another one across the street. I would love to see that atmosphere grow in Fort Wayne. It may take years, but it’s worth it, and I’d like to help it grow.”