It’s a brand new year, full of promise and potential. It’s a time to reflect on the past year and plan ahead for the year to come. As we all settle into our own personal resolutions, local organizations are doing the same. In this series, Hindsight 2023, we talk with some of Downtown Fort Wayne’s industry leaders and experts, and ask them for their reflections on 2023 and their goals for the new year.
In this second edition, we’re looking at attractions and entertainment, an industry that was hit hard by the pandemic. For what felt like forever, large gatherings were ill-advised. Breathing the same air wasn’t safe, and that can feel especially stifling when an organization depends on people sharing the same space. 2023 was—finally—a breath of fresh air.
We talked with three local organizations whose purpose is to serve people within their walls. And while one in particular has made innovative leaps toward reaching people outside its walls, they all agree that 2023 was the best year in a long time.
To get some insight into Downtown Fort Wayne’s attractions and entertainment sector, we spoke with the Embassy Theatre, the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, and the Allen County Public Library.
Carly Myers, Chief Marketing Officer at the Embassy Theatre
Molly: How did things go for the Embassy in 2023? What worked well, and what didn’t work so well?
Carly: In 2023, we were adjusting to being back at full capacity from the pandemic. Before everything shut down, we had been moving our programming philosophy in the mindful direction, to more presenting and co-presenting. So, as the entertainment industry began to return to business-as-usual, we weren’t sure how it would impact that intention. Doing business got a lot more expensive, and things we needed weren’t always as easy to source. The planning process became more complicated. However, refining our presenting strategy was paramount. We did that by trying things, learning from those experiences (and the patrons) and deciding how to book for the future.
And so a lot went very well for us. We had a record year in attendance and revenue with the Festival of Trees, our biggest fundraiser. We had our first sold-out kids show. We hosted two packed auditoriums for our educational “Learn It Live” events in October. We started work on an accessibility study for the theater. We replaced 318 windows on floors 2 through 7, to ensure the longevity of this historic building. We continued to expand staff, and we added training that has strengthened how we do business—our team exemplifies excellence.
Molly: That’s a lot of success! I’ve heard about the “pandemic effect” in other sectors, so I’m happy to hear it’s starting to wear off. Were there any hard lessons you learned in 2023?
Carly: I wouldn’t call these “hard” lessons, but we realized that some initiatives—like acquiring Middle Waves—are time consuming. We are working hard to preserve the intention and vibe of that music festival as we create a sustainable event that will be embraced and supported by the community.
Also, being an arts and culture organization, we have days when there are people here for 24 hours, wrapping one event while preparing for the next. We focused on helping newer staff adjust to their roles and the culture, and making sure experienced staff had what they needed to thrive and breathe through the busiest times. We tell everyone who starts here that it takes at least a full year to get comfortable.
Each season has its own priorities and unique pacing to support our theater, venue rentals, education programming and partnerships. We continue to work through labor shortages and the post-COVID change in mindset about work-life balance to create longevity and having more skilled supervisors to run things day to day. A large part of that is procuring passionate staff with long-term strategies, to inspire and support the team’s needs through the many long days and weeks.
Molly: Sounds like the Embassy is dedicated to innovating and evolving. So with that in mind, what are your aspirations for the Embassy in 2024?
Carly: The Embassy is growing; temporary difficulties and problem-solving will always accompany that process. However, our team has grit, and adaptability is our strong suit. I have seen our team, on the fly, solve problems that most other teams would not have had the skill, experience or fortitude to solve. We have built a culture where it is okay to try and fail and learn from things that don’t meet our high expectations.
This year will be exciting. We will host our first Middle Waves festival on June 15 at Parkview Field. We will begin expanding our youth programming as we hire a new education director (we upgraded this role to position us for growth). We continue to find creative ways to partner with arts colleagues. We are presenting more shows than we ever have, which allows us to seek out programming to meet community needs or to fill the gaps we see in this region. And, as we enter our new fiscal year in September, we will be growing our Broadway programming. All of this adds up to a stronger Embassy, poised for serving Northeast Indiana for generations to come.
Visit the historic Embassy Theatre at 125 West Jefferson Boulevard or online.
Nate Cardelli, General Manager at Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory
Molly: How did things go for the Conservatory in 2023?
Nate: This past year was a year of incredible growth and renewal for the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. 2023 charted the second-highest visitor numbers in the history of the Conservatory with 105,587 visitors. The highest year on record is 1984’s attendance number of 120,347 visitors, which occurred during the first full-year of operation after opening in November 1983. This increased visitor attendance was no accident. Compelling showcase exhibit themes and concentrated marketing efforts have raised the profile of the Conservatory as a regional attraction in Northeast Indiana.
Molly: You and your staff are clearly doing amazing work. Well done! Were there any hard lessons you all learned in 2023?
Nate: A hard lesson at the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory was learned early in the year while our HVAC controls were being replaced. The antiquated control system made temperature control within the interior garden space nearly impossible. With large swings in temperature, pest pressures grew to concerning levels. Thankfully, our HVAC control project completed shortly thereafter, which, in combination with concentrated Integrated Pest Management (IPM) efforts, helped the collection rebound in a way that regular visitors are noticing—it isn’t uncommon to hear that the Tropical House is “looking better than ever.”
The HVAC’s impact on the health of the collection had become clearer with each passing year, but it came to a head in 2023; thankfully the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory received an estate gift from passionate volunteers who had just recently passed away, Chuck and Nancy William. The William estate has fueled capital improvements in an incredible way; as the Conservatory celebrates its 40th anniversary, it has set the pace for the next 40 years. This is a testament to the power of building deeply-rooted community relationships: Chuck and Nancy William felt passionately about the future Conservatory, and are a shining example of the selfless generosity that has made this community thrive.
Molly: The Conservatory really adds so much life to the Downtown Fort Wayne community. It’s good to know its future is secure. In the short term, what are your aspirations for the Conservatory in 2024?
Nate: The Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory is ripe for another year of great success; our hope is to continue reaching new people each and every day, with our mission to provide a botanically unique venue for quality education, entertainment, and enjoyment. A compelling calendar of showcase exhibit themes starting with “Botanical Speedway” (Jan 13 – Apr 7) will surely surprise and delight each visitor that brightens our doorway.
Visit the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory at 1100 South Calhoun Street or online.
Aja Michael-Keller, Director of Communications at the Allen County Public Library
Molly: How was 2023 for the Library? Tell me everything: the good and the bad.
Aja: In the dynamic world of the Allen County Public Library (ACPL), 2023 stood out as a year of excitement and change for our team and our patrons. As we reflect on the past year, we are proud that the library has not just adapted to the changing times, but thrived, demonstrating innovation and commitment to serving our community.
By far, our most impactful undertaking was the launch of our new Polaris Integrated Library System, website, and mobile app on October 31. The launch marked the culmination of months of preparation and the migration of millions of records. The new tools are easier to use, and discovering ACPL’s vast collections and services is easier than ever.
One of the ACPL’s standout successes was born of our commitment to providing more diverse and inclusive programming. The library hosted a record number of events catering to various interests and age groups. From book clubs and author talks, to maker workshops and our popular Rock the Plaza concert series, ACPL remained a hub for community engagement.
We also celebrated a successful SPARK Summer Learning Program, logging millions of minutes of reading. Our branches distributed thousands of lunches to local children in partnership with FWCS’s summer lunch program. Our partnerships with Amani Family Services, Catholic Charities, and the city’s Everyone Home initiative helped us serve our community in new ways. The Genealogy Center and Rolland Center for Lincoln Research greeted thousands of guests—many from beyond Allen County—to research family history, and explore the life and times of Abraham Lincoln using historical artifacts and documents in our world-renowned collections. These partnerships expanded the library’s reach and strengthened its role as a community anchor.
In its first full year of operation, StoryScape welcomed thousands of children each month to read, learn, play, sing, and write! The popular early learning space at the Main Library allows for flexibility and an ever-changing experience for repeat visitors. The response has been so positive that plans are in place to expand StoryScape to other ACPL locations in 2024 and beyond! Furthermore, the Library invested in new technology to increase accessibility in the Main Library theater’s lighting and A/V system, and began work on upgrades to the Audio Reading Services production studios using a $100,000 grant from the AWS Foundation. The Library is where we gather, and these investments are critical to ensuring the community has spaces that foster connection and collaboration.
Molly: Wow! Sounds like it’s been a really positive year. Glad to hear it! It’s clear that you and everyone else there are working super hard to one-up yourselves every year. The StoryScape expansion is especially exciting! Does the ACPL have any other aspirations for 2024?
As we look forward to 2024, we’re excited to embark on our new strategic plan: “Allen County’s Window to Lifelong Learning and Discovery,” announced in October. This plan will drive our organizational strategies and operational decision-making through 2028. It leans on the Library’s existing mission of “Enriching the community through lifelong learning and discovery,” but includes, for the first time, a vision statement that sees “a community connected to each other through lifelong learning and the transformative power of stories.” Every day, we will strive to be a sustaining source of community pride while growing in ground-breaking ways!
Visit the Allen County Public Library’s website for branch locations, hours, and so much more.
Molly Conner is a Fort Wayne native and freelance writer. Having lived in Downtown Fort Wayne throughout her twenties, she loves watching her stomping grounds grow. With her love of storytelling and community in tow, she’s eager to tell Downtown Fort Wayne’s story piece-by-piece—exploring the people, spaces, and organizations that make it thrive.