Friday, May 22, 2015

An arena too far?

Hey, what do I know. Maybe Warrant is still out there, looking for just the right venue.

Warrant. The Kingston Trio.  Chad and Jeremy. Maybe even (oh, God, here we go again) indoor football.

All I know is the city of Fort Wayne paid a lot of money to some people who think there'd be a market for a 5,000-seat downtown arena, and here we got around that rosy again. Fifteen years ago another bunch of dreamers got everyone ramped up about a downtown arena, conveniently waiting until the horse was out of the barn to do so. The state lege had already given its blessing to the Memorial Coliseum expansion, so there was no harm in stirring a pot everyone knew would never  come to boil.

Now here we are again, looking into a downtown arena. In one sense it's something we should have seen coming, because the landscape is actually much more amenable to it now than it was then. With the advent of Parkview Field and the Harrison and the new complex going up at the corner of Wayne and Harrison, downtown Fort Wayne has become the hot new address.

Cool bars and cooler restaurants have grown up in the 'View's blast radius, as predicted by the visionaries. You can go downtown now past 6 p.m. and hear something besides crickets. It's an Indy-style revival on a smaller scale, and that's a good thing.

So the notion of a downtown arena was going to float to the surface eventually. That we don't really need it, of course, is both obvious and irrelevant. In the strictest sense of the word, there's a lot of things we don't need. You can come up with infinite examples if your prevailing interest is simply to squeeze every penny of public money until it screams.

Fortunately, even in Fort Wayne, there are enough visionaries who see what the city can be if only it  puts its back into it. I've often joked that our civic motto should be "E Pluribus It's Good Enough," but these days I'm only half-joking when I say it. Stuff is happening here, and it's good stuff.

That said ... I'm trying really hard to figure out what a 5,000-seat downtown arena could add to the mix that isn't already in the mix.

There may be attractions out there that aren't already playing the Coliseum or the Embassy or Foellinger, and that aren't exactly the right fit for any of them. But if you're strictly talking sports, are the Mad Ants going to re-locate downtown? Would someone actually be deluded enough to circle the drain with indoor football again? Indoor soccer, perhaps?

In order, the answers are 1) doubtful, 2) are you crazy and 3) well ... maybe. Back in the day, the Flames did have a small but fiercely loyal fan base.  It would likely be larger now because the game is larger here -- thanks in part to all those Flames who stuck around to help nurture the grassroots, and the example the Beasleys have set for what the game can do for you, even if you come from a quiet mid-sized city in the Midwest.

Outside of that, the main benefit of a 5,000-seat arena downtown is that it might be just the right size to entice the IHSAA to bring a basketball semistate back to the city after 20 years of farming them out to smaller venues.

That was a purely economic decision by the IHSAA, which killed the golden goose of Hoosier Hysteria and suddenly found its basketball tournament revenues halved. But based on what I saw in Huntington a couple of months ago, when an overflow crowd jammed Huntington North for a couple of semistate games, a 5,000-seat arena would seem to be the perfect fit -- and it would return to the tournament a big-time feel it doesn't really have now until the state finals.

Along those lines, I suppose you could put the occasional Saint Francis, Indiana Tech or IPFW game downtown, but I doubt any of those schools would be willing to pay what it would cost to play all their home games there. IPFW moved back on campus because it couldn't fill the Coliseum with anything but echoes, and it's doubtful it would be willing to move back off-campus again -- even though it blew its shot at upgrading its on-campus digs by building an all-purpose fieldhouse instead of one specifically designed for basketball.

In any case, what was on the table 15 years ago is on the table again. I don't know if it can fly. I don't even know if it can taxi. All I know is it's happening because downtown is happening.

Just like, you know, the lady said


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