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“Do you know what really drives me nuts about this city…?”

The Fort Wayne Reader digs a little deeper into a few of the gripes we’ve heard about our town.

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Bad things about Fort Wayne: some have suggested that that’s all the Fort Wayne Reader talks about. It’s not true. We’re city boosters here at the Fort Wayne Reader. Critical and (occasionally) sarcastic boosters, maybe, but just because we don’t think that we’re living in the best of all possible worlds doesn’t mean we can’t see Fort Wayne has many good things going for it, or could have many good things going for it.

Besides, who among us out there has not thrown up his or her hands at some point and said “do you know what really drives me nuts about this city…”?

So, we took note of some of the most frequent complaints we heard, and picked a small handful to follow up on.

Once again, these are just a few of the things that seemed to pop up most often. We’re well aware that there are more serious issues facing Fort Wayne than what we’ve picked up on for this article — loss of the high-wage manufacturing jobs that made Fort Wayne a booming city once upon a time, decline of support for many arts organizations in town, etc. But those things deserve more thoughtful, in-depth treatment than what we can give them here. For now, in no particular order…

We’re a test market for junk — and we think that’s cool
Actually, this is sort of interesting. There is a widespread belief that Fort Wayne’s reputation as the most average city that ever existed means we are regularly used as a test-market for companies eager to gauge the general public’s reaction to their new cola flavor, their new sandwich, their new bacon-flavored potato chip (not, say, new cell phone technology).

Here’s the catch: this cherished truism is a myth. Fort Wayne actually hasn’t been a test market in the traditional sense for decades. In the 60's, the military dropped a radioactive cloud over Fort Wayne to see how a biological agent might spread through a city if the Russians did the same thing, which probably marked the last time Fort Wayne was used as a major test market for stuff of dubious value.

Some 30 or 40 years ago, Fort Wayne represented national demographic trends, and was used frequently to test market supermarket packaged goods “We also had a couple of significant manufacturers headquartered here at the time like Eckrich and County Line that both became part of Beatrice Foods, which, back then, was a major multi-brand holding company,” says Todd Steele, partner at Leichty Media.

In the late 70s and early 80s, Fort Wayne became more urbanized and diverse. Steele explains the demographic center moved southward, and Muncie was considered to be that representative slice of America. “I suspect that since that time that marketers and researchers have become vastly more sophisticated,” says Steele. “Rather than trying to get that representative slice of Americana, products and their marketers are more likely to test market to very specific niche segments that better research tools make very easy to find and focus upon.” These days, marketers can slice those niches out of almost any relatively large market, so Fort Wayne offers no unique benefits or advantages in that context.

Steele adds: “If you want further evidence that Fort Wayne isn't of much interest to marketing researchers, consider this: When a product is test-marketed, one of the elements is usually to do a series of focus groups for qualitative analyses of the tested products. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one real focus group facility (two-way mirrored observation room, camera/recording set-up, etc.) in the city.”

It takes forever for indie/non-mainstream movies to get here
So, maybe we’re not a test-market for junk food, but you can bet that when McDonald’s unleashes its new McRib with special recipe chocolate and marshmallow topping, no resident of Fort Wayne will be left wanting. However, that new movie you’ve been hearing and reading about for weeks? Unless it cost at least $100 million and employed an army of CGI animators, it’s probably not going to be coming to a theater near you anytime soon. Oh, we’ll get it eventually — about three weeks before it’s available on DVD. Don’t get us wrong: we’re hardly art-house snobs. The Fort Wayne Reader loves movies about exploding spaceships and rampaging dinosaurs as much as the next person (okay, probably more than the next person). But even if we really wanted to be art-house snobs, it would be pretty tough in this town.

“The main reason is that release patterns are based on market size, and we’re not a very big movie market,” says Catherine Lee, director of Cinema Center a not-for-profit organization that shows independent, foreign, and other specialty films in Fort Wayne.

Lee explains that independent distributors will wait to see how a movie does in one of the major markets — New York, LA, Chicago — before deciding how many prints to make. Then, they’ll put them in the top 20 markets until they run out of gas. The distributors start taking bookings, and the flick makes its way down the cinematic food chain. “So we come after Indianapolis, which comes after Detroit, which comes after Chicago…” Lee says. “Even if you ask for something, (the distributors) don’t want to take a booking in Fort Wayne until they are sure that every larger market around us has had its chance.”

Many independent distributors are starting to think like the Hollywood companies — make a ton of prints and get them out to as many places as possible. But money is always an issue for the smaller distributors. Lee says that Cinema Center has been able to pull off a few coups here and there, like in 1999 when a serendipitous relationship with a distributor led to Cinema Center nabbing the then hotly-buzzed Blair Witch Project before the mega-plexes. As far as interest for non-mainstream movies in Fort Wayne, Lee says some seem to do well, others… not so well. But the fact that Cinema Center has been around in some form or another for 28 years must mean something.

Also, the six-screen Holiday theater recently started offering the kind of non-mainstream fare that has been Cinema Center’s provender. It’s owned by Regal Entertainment, the kind of massive company one might think wouldn’t switch from a second-run dollar operation to an “art house” without first determining there was a sizeable market for that sort of thing here. But a call to Holiday revealed only that folks there “aren’t allowed to talk to the media.” I told them I didn’t think it would be a problem, quoting one of the phone calls I got that week (“no one reads your crappy rag”). Still, they wouldn’t talk, and I was given a phone number for the headquarters in Nashville. They haven’t called back. One local source not involved with the company but who also wanted to remain anonymous said the new direction was probably just an attempt to carve out a niche in a market still gaga over the engineering marvel of stadium seating. In short, while it might be nice for anyone wanting something different from the usual Hollywood blockbusters to have six screens open seven days a week, enjoy it while it lasts.

No all-ages venues for original music
There’s lots of original music going on here, of all variety, and anyone over 21 can go to a bar or a club or a restaurant and see it. But the kids wanna rock, as some cheesy Canadian once said, and the kind of all-ages shows that really let a local music scene thrive — small venue, inexpensive tickets — are few and far between here. “We’ve got tons of churches and strip clubs, but no place for all age concert venues,” says Jay Ehrmann, manager for local band Definitely Gary. “We’ve had a couple open that just don’t do well. They’ve popped up and just gone away.”

There are a dozen reasons why an all-ages venue either succeeds or doesn’t, from finding a venue to promoting the show. But all that is workable. It really comes down to two things — money and liability. Risk is a huge problem. Someone with the money to put behind a venue for all-ages shows and make it profitable knows that all it takes is one drunk teenager to put them out of business. Ehrmann says that he’s seen very few serious incidents at any of the shows he’s been to. “(The people running the show) knew that if the police came and there was some 17-year-old kid with booze, they’d get charged, so they monitored that and kept that all away.”

Making any money out of the venture is also tough, especially when you can’t sell alcohol. Add the aforementioned liability to that, and there’s not much incentive to keep an all-ages venue going.

Of course, there’s always the D.I.Y. approach, but many people run into the same problems. Big John of Burning Trash, a recording studio/label that offers recording and promotion to area bands on a very tight budget, says that most of the time, the cost of renting a venue can be prohibitive. “You have to pay ridiculous amounts. Most of the time, (owners) want you to pay insurance for the night, which can cost a huge amount of money.”

Big John says that after they lost a good venue, he tried running Burning Trash shows out of his house, but despite lack of any trouble and a strong security presence, those were eventually shut down by the police.

Err, wasn’t there a fort here once upon a time?
From a sports complex to riverboat gambling, the plans, visions, dreams, and strategies for improving downtown Fort Wayne could fill an entire series of articles, and one day, they’ll get one. For the sake of simplification, most ideas seem to fall into one of two categories: (1) more restaurants, shops, and coffee houses will bring visitors to downtown; or (2) develop something that will bring visitors, thus making downtown a more attractive option for business owners, who will then open more restaurants, shops, etc. As I said, we’re simplifying a great deal, and each option has its strong points (somewhere in there is the fact that downtown has a lot of good entertainment options, they’re just spread out all over the place). But, to look at option #2 a little more closely, what does Fort Wayne already have that’s downtown, (or close enough) that could be turned into a major attraction under the right management, and perhaps help spur downtown development? Hmmm, something historical, maybe…

“I think it’s perfect for downtown,” says Sean O’Brien. “The last time there was an organization tried to do anything with the Fort, Headwaters Park wasn’t even there. So now we have that beautiful park right next door. The Greenway comes through the park now. The site is changing around it, and we feel that that’s to our benefit. It’s worth taking another shot at this.”

O’Brien is with Historic Fort Wayne Incorporated (www.oldfortwayne.org), a non-profit organization that “took over” the Old Fort site just last October. Since then, weather permitting, they’ve been cleaning up and doing a little restoration. “Really what we’re concentrating on right now is cleaning the place up. It’s a lot of yeoman’s work. A lot of it’s kind of boring,” says O’Brien. “We’ve been putting shutters on the windows. We have restored the cannon. We’re looking into getting the stockade rebuilt. Most of our efforts have been behind the scenes — raising money, getting a volunteer base together. We’re planning on making a big splash this spring.”

Fort Wayne residents of a certain age might remember a school trip or two to the Old Fort, which was populated by actors in period clothing shooting off cannons, tending livestock, and giving tours. The Fort Wayne Historical Society ran it, but maintaining the site was an enormous financial burden. “We feel that having it open all the time and trying to make it like a business, open 9 – 5, with paid interpreters… It didn’t work. People go down there, see it a few times, and quit coming, and they don’t go back unless they have someone from out of town.” O’Brien’s plan is to have special events and educational programs there frequently, staffed by volunteers. “This is how these historic sites all over the country operate. You have a few people there, and once in a while, have a big event.”

We’d hardly suggest that period dress and firing cannons would bring tourists and residents downtown in droves (well, maybe the cannon would), but it might be a pretty good supplement to all the other ideas in different stages of development — and one that families could enjoy, at the very least. Communities all over the country have figured out how to turn their own history to their advantage, even if all they have to offer is the retirement residence of a third-rate president. We have the fort of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Even though he’s dead, people love a lunatic; we could use our association with this one to boost our profile. After all, look what Bobby Knight did for IU basketball.

That’s all for now. Maybe next time, we’ll do stuff we like…

"Hey, you guys missed a few!"

In researching our feature story, we heard a lot of complaints. Here are a few more.

Not many facilities for outdoor exercise/activities
Plans for extending and improving the River Greenway are supposedly underway, and there are several local organizations working on bike trails, etc. The question is, when they’re built, are you going to use them?

Preponderance of chain restaurants/stores
We wrote a big article last spring about being colonized by national chains. We’re beginning to suspect that this reaction against national chain stores is sort of like a reaction against, say, Ashlee Simpson: we can’t find anyone who says a nice word about her, but somebody is buying all those CDs.

Being ranked at the bottom of Men’s Health magazine’s “101 Smartest Cities” list
My God! We’ve already been called fat. Now we’re stupid, too? How much of this do we have to put up with? Now all we need is for someone to come along and call us the drunkest city in America.

Flooding, flooding, and more flooding
Yes, it stinks, and it’s a serious problem. If anyone can come up with a more creative solution than sandbags, there are plenty of people here who would love to hear it.

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.