Fort Wayne Draws Athletes From Around the World

By Sherri Middleton

Earlier this year I requested some information about Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities for an article I was writing. Visit Fort Wayne, the Fort Wayne/Allen County Convention & Visitors Bureau followed up and asked if I was interested in coming up to tour their sports facilities. I jumped at the chance.

We scheduled my visit during an extremely busy time as the city hosted the 2019 International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) Goalball & Judo International Qualifier in partnership with the United States Association of Blind Athletes.

Hundreds of athletes, delegates, coaches, trainers and family members from around the world converged on Fort Wayne to compete for a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

The City of Fort Wayne and Visit Fort Wayne among others, sponsored the events that included more than 1,400 volunteer shifts racking up nearly 6,000 hours during the two weeks of the events that included more than 600 international guests.

My excitement built as my travel date drew closer. I’d never seen goalball and I’d never attended an international sporting event that would lead to qualifying events for the Olympic Games.

Upon arrival at the Fort Wayne International Airport, Auvis Cole, the new director of sales for Visit Fort Wayne greeted me with his Jeep. As we enjoyed the sunny day with the top open, Cole explained that he only recently joined Visit Fort Wayne, previously serving as director of sales and services with the Dayton/Montgomery County (Ohio) Convention & Visitors Bureau and vice president of sales for the Rock Hill/York County (South Carolina) CVB.

On our way downtown, Cole pointed out points of interest and provided a little insight into his background, his new home and what to expect during my stay.

With a quick loop around downtown, Cole pointed out the growing downtown district, the CVB offices, new shops and dining options that were opening, and his new home in an under-construction walking district that will be a popular area for locals and visitors alike.

As we drove through the main thoroughfares, we passed Parkview Field, the minor league baseball stadium that is home to the TinCaps, the Class A Minor League Baseball team affiliated with the San Diego Padres.

It was late afternoon as patrons headed into the ballpark in the middle of downtown Fort Wayne and as a baseball lover, I hoped my tour director would suggest going to a game. That feeling was quickly replaced with an overwhelming need to sleep following a pre-sunrise departure from the Pensacola International Airport, a layover in Atlanta and the final part of the day I needed sleep for the busy days ahead.

After the tour, Cole dropped me off at the Hilton Fort Wayne at the Grand Wayne Center just a short walk from the Embassy Theatre, Parkview Field and Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory.

As always, I explore the hotel upon arrival and discovered my room had a large work desk, complimentary wireless internet, a 37-inch flat-screen TV and views of the city. The Hilton is located on South Calhoun Street and features a Starbucks, a restaurant on-site, a lounge, pantry, frozen treats and a shop with snack items and souvenirs. The hotel is also near numerous dining options, shops and it is also connected to the Grand Wayne Convention Center through a connecting hallway. I also like these types of properties with easy access to event space and I would learn during my stay that the athletes competing in the convention center enjoyed the ease of accessibility, an athlete lounge area outfitted with video games, textural objects and artwork and an information desk, in addition, to warm up and competition floors.

Did I mention that Kent with Hilton also sent up a charcuterie platter with bottled waters for my arrival? Much appreciated after a long day of travel.

The next morning I joined Stephanie Coleman, group sales manager, sports with Visit Fort Wayne for breakfast at Proximo where we met Auvis Cole before heading to Turnstone for a tour while goalball athletes practiced.

At Turnstone, Coleman explained that the center has served the adaptive sports and recreation needs of the community for 20 years. It is now one of the largest Paralympic Sports Clubs in the United States and continues to offer competitive and recreational opportunities for wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, power soccer, indoor rowing, adaptative golf, sled hockey, boccia and a place for young children with special needs to spend the days learning and growing with specialized assistance and care.

The Plassman Athletic Center at Turnstone opened in 2015 and includes a 75,000 square-foot fieldhouse, a 230-meter track and four collegiate-sized basketball courts, in addition to a 5,655-square-foot warm water pool, 13,000-square feet of space for equipment, exercise classes, personal training and therapy. It also has locker rooms with showers and restrooms specifically designed for people with disabilities, an adult day program and community conference spaces. It is the home training site for the silver medal-winning 2016 Paralympic Men’s Goalball team and has hosted the Endeavor Games, Goalball National Championship and the Power Soccer National Championships, among other sporting events.

From Turnstone and Plassman Athletic Center, we headed a short drive away to the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum where we met C.J. Steigmeyer, vice president of finance and COO, and Chelsea Scofield, marketing communications coordinator for an extensive tour.

Originally built in 1952, the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum serves as the premier entertainment venue in Northeast Indiana.

The Expo Center was added in 1989 and provided 150,000 square feet of multipurpose space. In 2002, the roof of the arena was raised more than 41 feet to add suites, club seats and an upper deck. The conference center opened in 2015, adding 60,000 square feet of space and in 2017, 25 suites and 318 club seats were remodeled. A new scoreboard and LED ribbon boards were installed in 2018.

The Coliseum facility and Expo Center are home to the Komets Hockey, Mad Ants Basketball, Fort Wayne Mastodons Basketball, Blue Bombers Indoor Football and the Fort Wayne Derby Girls in addition to national concert tours, trade shows and high-profile sporting events.

With a maximum seating capacity of 13,000 under a million square feet of space under one roof, the coliseum draws at least a million visitors each year and has for the past 29 consecutive years for events.

The coliseum has 5,000 parking spaces, a Holiday Inn across the street and another 15 hotels within four miles. The coliseum will host the NCAA Women’s DI Basketball Championship in 2022 and the NCAA Men’s DII Basketball Championship 2019-2022, in addition to NUWAY Wrestling Championships, NCAA Volleyball Championships, NCAA Hockey and the USA Roller Sports Speed and Figure Skating National Championships among other events.

While the entire facility is impressive, one of my favorite places is the CREATE Tasting Kitchen that is used for pre-event food tastings with Aramark culinary staff. The space is used to help event planners select meals, but can also be used for bridal showers, wedding groups or for conferences. The state-of-the-art tasting kitchen has room for small groups to sit and watch or sample dishes near the conference center rooms and entrances.

The coliseum is also near the Johnny Appleseed Park, a 31-acre area and is named in honor for John Chapman who is known in folklore tales as Johnny Appleseed. The park is a favorite for its famous campground with 41 RV hookups, the final resting place of Chapman, Camp Canine, picnicking, playgrounds and a Rivergreenway walking biking trail that cover 24 miles. The park also hosts the annual Johnny Appleseed Festival the third full weekend of September.

After a busy morning of site visits, we headed for lunch at Casa Ristorante Italiano, a restaurant that has been serving Fort Wayne since 1977. It was selected in Fort Wayne Newspapers as a Readers’ Choice in 2019 and features favorite Italian dishes. We enjoyed a family-style salad, bread sticks and other courses.

With full stomachs and a much-needed break from the heat, we headed over to SportONE/Parkview Icehouse where Peg Campana provided a tour of the multipurpose ice rink facility. With three NHL-sized ice surfaces, it is the only three-sheet facility in Indiana and one of the largest in the region. This facility is home to the Fort Wayne Amateur Hockey Association, the Fort Wayne Ice Skating Club, IPFW Mastodons Hockey Team, Indiana Tech Hockey Teams and the Fort Wane High School Hockey Association. The Fort Wayne Komets professional hockey team also practices here.

The facility includes banquet facilities, ice skating parties, a full-service restaurant and bar, an area overlooking the three sheets of ice to watch sports on TV and it can host corporate events or small parties. Once again, Parkview Icehouse provided a welcome break from the summer heat. I could have stayed the rest of the day watching kids play hockey or skating, but we had more to see.

Our next stop was the nearby SportONE/Fieldhouse, a 57,000-square-foot multiuse facility designed for premier indoor sports competitions. The facility has eight volleyball courts, six basketball courts, hardwood floors, bleacher seating, Jimmy’s Grill Restaurant/Bar, sports performance area, 21 restrooms and three personal showers, a mezzanine level with a bar and virtual golf driving range and more.

After the tour, I headed back to the hotel to catch up on work and then decided to walk to the convention center where I ran into Auvis. We got a behind-the-scenes glimpse into practices for the IBSA Judo event and talked to some of the volunteers from across the country who had made their way to Fort Wayne for the event. Many of the volunteers I met were from sorority’s from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which was one of my colleges of choice during my bachelor studies. Auburn University was my first. War Eagle! It is a small world after-all.

With a quick change into appropriate dinner attire, I leisurely strolled toward the Fort Wayne Library and met Stephanie and Auvis at Ruth’s Chris where we were greeted by managers and waiter/waitresses as if we were long-lost friends. My steak was, of course, served on a sizzling plate and we enjoyed appetizers, wine and shareable side dishes as we discussed how Fort Wayne is becoming a mecca for a variety of sporting events as a destination that is revitalizing its downtown. As I look out the windows from our corner spot (the best spot in the house), people walk along the sidewalks on their way to dinner, drinks or home in this vibrant city.

With a full belly I headed back to the hotel and enjoyed an evening walk around downtown.

The next morning, Auvis met me in the lobby and we headed to Cindy’s Diner, an authentic ‘50s diner where locals grab a seat at the bar and the owner cooks breakfast to order on the flat grill. The restaurant is situated in a simple, albeit small stand on the corner of West Berry Street not far from my hotel and the convention center and proclaims: “We serve the whole world, 15 at a time.” I didn’t count the seats in the diner because I was too busy reading the signs, talking to the diners next to me and chatting with the owner who was cooking my breakfast. During our meal, we enjoyed a lively conversation about garbage pickup (I will spare you the details, but local residents are hoping for a speedy remedy. Otherwise, the mayor might be in trouble), whether the cook likes to prepare omelets and conversations about all the IBSA athletes who found their way to this landmark destination. Check out this place if you are ever in Fort Wayne. You can find them on Facebook under Cindy’s Diner Fort Wayne.

I loved this place and plan to return the next time I’m in Fort Wayne. They made me feel like a local. Isn’t that what we all want to feel when exploring a new city?

From Cindy’s Diner, Auvis and I headed over to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. I like zoos and this one is ranked by Trip Advisor as the 7th Best Zoo in the World. Auvis and his Jeep were fortunate to find a parking space directly across from the entrance and I was grateful because I’d just eaten an entire plate of eggs, bacon and hash browns.

We quickly made our way to the African Journey to see giraffes, lions, tigers and natural areas. We soon discovered misting zones and then discovered the Sky Safari, which I insisted we ride so I could catch a breeze without walking. (I’m not getting any younger.) With our bird’s eye view, we spotted some animals, spoke to people moving past us and captured some photos of the surroundings.

From the zoo we headed to Turnstone for the first rounds of competition in goalball where I watched in awe as these blindfolded athletes competed in intense competition. Our other member, Stephanie was volunteering at the event that day and brought a team into the venue to compete, so we had a front-row view of the action. I appreciate Auvis explaining the rules of the game and I feel that I’m now a more prepared to intelligently discuss the sport.

With athletes headed back to the hotel or other venues between games, we met at Nawa in downtown Fort Wayne for an incredibly delicious Asian Inspired meal with lots of ice water, tea and more ice water.

From Nawa, we enjoyed a hard-hat tour of the new Promenade Park with Megan Butler. Fort Wayne’s three rivers: the St. Mary’s, the St. Joseph and the Maumee provide the centerpiece for entertainment in downtown Fort Wayne. Promenade is the new venue with access to dining, river views and recreation, a Tree Canopy Trail, bridge over the river and plenty of room to relax.

Promenade will open Aug. 9-11 with three days of themed hands-on activities, performances, displays and celebrations. A lighted boat parade, butterfly release and boat rides are part of the opening celebration plans.

This year-round park is the first phase of Fort Wayne’s transformation of Riverfront projects that will connect downtown dining and shopping to the rivers.

The park includes the Sweetwater Band Shell, Doermer Kids’ Canal, an Amphitheatre, dining gardens, a playground and recreational opportunities.

I know I haven’t mentioned this yet, but Fort Wayne apparently has a festival or event every weekend or weekday throughout the year, maybe. People here love to gather together for music, food, fun and a love of community. When I hear that when I visit a new city, I know it must be a good place to visit and live.

So, Fort Wayne is answering the call from its local residents and it is attracting visitors with amenities, events, facilities and activities year-round.

After our tour of Promenade, I regretfully suggested we skip our tour of Debrand Fine Chocolate. I don’t know what I was thinking since I love chocolate and Debrand’s first store was located in Fort Wayne, where Cathy Brand-Beere called her childhood home. Debrand employs 100 people in Fort Wayne’s four retail shops and the company ships the highest-quality ingredients imported from Belgium, Switzerland and other chocolates from around the world. Debrand’s headquarters is still located in Fort Wayne.

So, after a break, I met Stephanie for the 2019 IBSA Goalball and Judo Paralympic welcome ceremony at Parkview Field where we met local officials, supporters and others in a skybox overlooking the field as the athletes from around the world entered the stadium in Olympic fashion. The athletes carried their flags and waved to the crowds before taking their seats behind first base to enjoy live music, speeches and welcome announcements.

The following morning, I met Stephanie for a tour of the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory directly across the street from the Hilton. Our guide, Nate Cardelli introduced us to the butterfly exhibit, tropical gardens, dessert and open grounds in the heart of downtown Fort Wayne where local groups and events host music events, receptions, mixers, and other activities in the garden setting. I also discovered that my host, Stephanie is also related to the namesakes of the gardens and other locations in Fort Wayne.

We were fortunate to meet Mark Luttik, general manager of Hilton Fort Wayne while watching Wimbledon and the Women’s Cup World Soccer USA vs. Netherland’s in the hotel lounge. Mark is a citizen of the U.S., but his birthplace is the Netherlands, so, as you might expect he was highly interested in this round of play.

Our final stop before catching my flight was to visit NOLA on 13 Bistro & Event Center where I met the owners, enjoyed a true South Louisiana dining experience, enjoyed the view of Fort Wayne and surrounding areas and developed what will hopefully become a lasting friendship with Stephanie Coleman. We discussed children, health issues, business ventures, Cajun cuisine and all the Fort Wayne has to offer.

Auvis and Stephanie, I appreciate your hospitality and look forward to seeing you both soon.

Editor’s Note: Visit Fort Wayne provided travel, dining and hotel accommodations and may have covered additional incentives as part of this media familiarization (FAM) trip to Fort Wayne. As always, the opinions I express and the suggestions I make are my own.