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Will downtown baseball succeed? An Indiana city may be a model

Fort Wayne, Ind.'s Parkview Field is held up as an example for Knoxville and the county.

Check out Fort Wayne, Ind.

That's not something you expect to hear East Tennessee elected officials say.

But in touting the benefits of a proposed downtown Knoxville sports stadium, Fort Wayne comes up again and again.

It's become the go-to reference for businessman Randy Boyd and city and county officials when they think about a proposed stadium east of the Old City along Jackson Avenue. Some have even traveled there to see it for themselves.

It helps that Fort Wayne's story is a successful one.

In 2007, facing a downtown of empty storefronts and buildings that fell silent when all the workers went home, the city pushed through a project to build a multi-use stadium for its minor league ball club, longtime Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry said.

Many people didn't like the idea. In fact, some surveys indicated close to 70 percent opposition to "Harrison Square," as it came to be known.

But city leaders pressed on. The old ballpark was off by itself in another location. The city wanted something new it could integrate into the downtown design.

Henry is happy to report the project, which included a hotel and condos, worked out. The park accommodates about 8,000 baseball fans.

Credit: City of Fort Wayne
Fort Wayne, Ind., Mayor Tom Henry

"Prior to that our downtown was pretty sleepy," the mayor said, smiling broadly.

Fort Wayne's population is about 266,000, making it the second largest city in Indiana. It's located northeast of Indianapolis between Chicago and Cleveland in Allen County, population about 379,000.

Parkview Field, which Fort Wayne owns, not only gave people a place to go but it triggered millions in additional development, he said. The area includes a Courtyard by Marriott, a parking garage, apartments and retail/office space.

They've proved the stadium can be used for other things, Henry said.

Civic groups use it. It hosts wedding parties. Sometimes they show movies on the big screen. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have taken part in sleepovers on the field. It's also hosted running events.

"If you come up with an idea and the management of Parkview Field is open to it, we'll do it," Henry said.

The mayor estimates over the last decade or so there's been an additional $1 billion in surrounding development. Two corporate headquarters have moved downtown with a third on the way, he said.

When he took office in 2008, Henry said some 500 to 600 people lived downtown. Now there are more than 2,000 residents.

Knoxville already has downtown growth momentum, so it doesn't need a ballpark to jumpstart redevelopment. The desire for downtown residences is strong, foot traffic is consistent and new restaurants routinely open.

Credit: Fort Wayne TinCaps
Parkview Field, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs have both visited Fort Wayne.

"We were there on the day of a farmers market, and it was very active and engaged, with people walking, milling about," she recalled. "There were people using the walkway inside the stadium just as a walking track."

Concessions are open during the day if someone wants to get something to eat, Henry said.

Jacobs liked how the stadium had large loading zones for events like concerts that require easy access for moving equipment.

Kincannon and Jacobs think a downtown stadium under James White Parkway could fuel new development to the east and north and burnish Knoxville's appeal as a visitor destination.

In addition to wanting to move his Double A Tennessee Smokies down there, Boyd has assembled an investment group ready to spend about $140 million in private development that includes commercial and residential space.

Credit: Fort Wayne Redevelopment
Original rendering for Fort Wayne's Harrison Square

The stadium would be built through a sports authority with the power to issue bonds to borrow money for construction. Boyd already owns the land, which he'd hand over to the publicly owned stadium.

During his Indiana visit, Jacobs said it was helpful to hear Fort Wayne officials talk about the things they did right as well as the things they would have done differently, like add more space for meetings.

It's a good template if the city and county are going to go forward, maybe as quickly as this year, with a multi-use park, the mayors said.

"My only advice is to make sure that your city has a significant amount of ultimate involvement in it," Henry said.

Credit: Visit Fort Wayne
Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, Ind.