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Low rent, high traffic, and downtown charm
How the Wells Street Corridor is spurring its own redevelopment
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
The scene is a Thursday afternoon in February. The place is an echoing room in the former YWCA complex on Wells street.
On a large piece of white rectangular paper, a member of the American Institute of Architects has written three big letters — “A” “L” and “P.” They stand for “Assets,” “Liabilities,” and “Potential,” and of the three categories, it’s the list under the “P” category that continues to grow and grow as the handful of people in the group offer their suggestions and ideas.
The occasion is the Wells Street Design Workshop, hosted by the Wells Street Business Association and the City of Fort Wayne and facilitated by the A.I.A. Here, a group of business owners and residents have come together to lay the groundwork for the possible future of the Wells Street Corridor and the surrounding area.
A strip of businesses and residents that runs roughly from the St. Mary’s River on the south and State street on the north, the Wells Street Corridor has seen enormous changes over the past few years, and business owners in the area are now taking steps to capitalize on what they see as the area’s rich diversity and unique spirit.
Indeed, the Wells Street Corridor is an interesting mix of relative newcomers — Convolution Records, Big-Eyed Fish — and long-established shops like G.I. Joe’s (40 years in the same location) and Linda Lou’s furniture store. Across the street from Hyde Brothers Books (marking 15 years on Wells street this year) is the six-year old Panaderia Indiana Mexican Bakery. Restaurants such as Big Eyed Fish, Klemm’s café, Jack & Johnny’s and the new Dona Marie Mexican restaurant right next to the bakery do a great lunchtime business from downtown…
These and many other small locally owned businesses have survived and grown due to the area’s combination of high traffic and low rent. The narrow street and the older buildings give the area a certain downtown charm. “There probably isn’t more than a handful of new buildings from here to State Street,” jokes Sam Hyde, owner of Hyde Brothers Books. Hyde explains that when they were looking for a location for Hyde Brothers, Wells street just had the “feel” of a bookstore neighborhood. “I’ve seen places much like ours in strip malls and it just doesn’t seem the same,” he says.
“There’s so much interest in this area right now,” adds Linda Lou of (you guessed it) Linda Lou’s furniture store on the corner of Wells and 4th street. She first opened the store with her husband in 1981, left Fort Wayne in ‘91, and returned six years ago. “There’s a big variety. It’s kind of becoming like some of the places you can go to in Chicago where you can walk up and down the street and see different shops and things.”
The reason the Wells Street Corridor is getting so much attention these days might have something to do with the renewed effort business owners and residents are putting in to taking the area to the next level. The Wells Corridor Business Association has been active since November 2005, with the object of promoting the historic value of the corridor and expanding stabilization and growth throughout the neighborhood. Though the relatively new group has yet to name a board of directors or even a president, most people credit Joshua Harper, the business manager at Sloan Funeral Home, and Judi Wire of Great Panes Glass with spearheading the organization. “Everybody was kind of doing their own thing, and maybe not as effectively as they could,” explains Harper. “There was a need to draw us together.”
“We’d get together and do programs occasionally,” adds Wire, who has been on Wells for 19 years. “We used to organize a Christmas walk with the trolleys with the different businesses to promote ourselves as a corridor, but we weren’t getting very far with community involvement. Josh had energy and he kept bugging me. Finally, we got reactivated. We’ve had some new businesses come in and they can see the value of teaming up together as far as promoting our corridor.”
In a relatively short time, they’ve been able to make some aesthetic changes to the area, and forge some alliances to foster a more community feel. They’ve cleaned up a city-owned park between 3rd and Wells that had long been neglected, and put plant hangers up on the street’s historic lampposts. “We work with both Precious Blood and Bloomingdale Schools, and we’ve worked with Third Street Church of God,” Wire says. The church youth group painted the historic lampposts on Wells street, which according to Wire had been up since the 80s and were looking kind of tacky. Harper got the youth group excited about the idea and coordinated the project. Ream Steckbeck donated the paint, Paul Davis Restoration donated the rollers and the sticks.
They’re also excited about a fundraiser they’re about to launch to pay for blue LED lights on the Well Street Bridge. And hopefully in May, the slice of land just near the bridge between Ewing and Wells will play home to the new Police and Firefighter Memorial. Josh Harper thinks that’ll bring some “good energy” to the area. He adds that he thinks Wells street should be able to take advantage of its role as both a downtown artery and a shopping area. “I think you can have the best of both worlds,” he says. “18,000 cars pass through here everyday. What we need to do is capitalize on that, make this a place where you stop and pick up something to eat on your way home, or meet people down here for dinner. Let’s give them more reasons to stop.”
The challenges? Parts of Wells street are a little worse for wear and tear. For every new business going in — Cloud Nine owner Ben Rodgers is currently renovating the property next door with plans of opening a coffee house this spring — there seems to be a dusty, abandoned storefront. It’s enough for the people who live and own businesses in the area to list as a major concern. Bob and Judy Mendenhall, two active members of the area’s neighborhood association who have lived in that section of town for many years, point out that just across the street from the well-kept Richard’s Bakery is a seemingly abandoned building with a rusting truck permanently parked in its back yard. The Mendenhalls don’t think the building even has a roof. “I went down and trimmed the bushes just so it would look nice, but we can’t do anything about the truck that’s sitting there,” says Jean Mendenhall. “We can’t do anything about it because of the neighborhood code: it runs.”
Some people also think the area suffers from a bad reputation. Almost everyone talks about how just a short time ago, three taverns clustered around the corner of Wells and 4th gave the area the nickname “the Devil’s Triangle.” “Two o’clock in the afternoon I had drunks come in wanting to get a tattoo,” laughs Steve Arnett, a former service technician who opened up Wildman Tattoos nine years ago. Though he says he never had any problems, the overall tone of the area has improved since two of the three places closed down — one was annexed by Linda Lou’s, and the other became Big Eyed Fish. “We liked the historic area and we wanted to see if we could tame the lion,” says Tony Bryant, who opened Big Eyed Fish a couple of years ago with Tim Allen. “We wanted to towards be a part of all that and try to get rid of that bad reputation it’s had for years.”
Like Arnett, most business owners claim they never had any problems, especially not during daylight hours, and both taverns have been closed for at least a couple years now. Yet many feel the stigma of rowdier times still lingers. Linda Lou concedes that it might take some time for people to get over that. “I’ve been here basically 20 years and I’ve never had a problem, but of course I know everybody,” she says. “My husband grew up in this neighborhood, so I just don’t see the problem myself. But years ago, when I was first here, we had a policeman that walked the beat. I just think that maybe, if other people see something like that, then that last bit of fear would go away. If that’s what it’s going to take to make people feel okay, then…”
Others feel that simply cleaning up the area would work wonders for its public image. “I’d like to see the street get cleaned up, and I’d like to see it greened up,” says Shawna Nicelley of G.I. Joe’s army surplus store, a staple of Wells Street for 40 years. “I’d like to see more flowers, more care. I’d like it to be more charming.”
Nicelley, who runs G.I. Joe’s with her parents Bob and Nyla Doswell (it was founded by her great uncle, Marvin Recht) is also pretty blunt when it comes to what she doesn’t want to see on the Wells corridor. “I’d like to see the businesses who aren’t interested in helping our cause just leave,” she says. “If they’re going to be empty, if they’re not going to improve their building, if they’re going to be an eyesore, then let them go somewhere else. We need businesses who are concerned and care about this area.”
With Imagine school in the works on the former YWCA campus, the neighborhood could soon garner even more attention and experience another surge of growth. And though nearly everyone on Wells street wants to see more development, they like the affordability and the downtown ambiance of the area just the way it is. Sam Hyde says that he’d like to see “anything but a Starbucks” set up shop on Wells. “I like the mix we’ve got,” he adds. “There’s not a brand name from the river to State street.”