2020. What can we say but good riddance! We always try to plan for unexpected (black swan) or worst (hit by a bus) outcomes when we think about organizational planning. This year proved beyond a doubt why we go through such contingency planning. That being said, I am very pleased to bring forward this Annual Report. Our Board and staff pivoted to embrace the new challenges posed by COVID-19; bans on mass gatherings and events, work from home and office shutdowns, entire seasons shut down at Headwaters Park, Embassy Theater, Parkview Field and others. Our restaurant and retail environment went from booming to desperate in a single month, our parking issues disappeared in the same time frame, and bookings for our local entertainment and hospitality sectors evaporated. Between February and March, our challenges changed from how to bring people Downtown to how to avoid drawing a crowd. As you’ll see from some of the stats in this report, we were able to take some of our traditional programs like Clean and Green, Lunch on the Square, Days of Holly Shopping, and Night of Lights and adapt them to a new virtual and socially distanced environment.
New emergency programs came into being quickly like our two-part restaurant support efforts. Our Waiter on the Way program initially ran March through June with some Downtown restaurants seeing a 400% increase in delivery sales. More than one restaurant owner said that the cash flow thus generated kept them going in the worst part of the first shut down. Simultaneously we were working on expanding our outdoor dining options Downtown like the new “Hello” alley activation. Partnering with the City of Fort Wayne to leverage federal CARES funds allowed us to massively expand these two efforts in the fourth quarter. Eventually our Waiter on the Way program generated over $3,000,000 in revenue for local restaurants and service staff. Outdoor heaters extended the season for restaurants, and new and expanded public dining areas like the Porch Off Calhoun and the Hello Alley will be popping up in the Spring. Our retail storefronts needed similar intervention – our Sidewalk Sale, gift card program and our month-long Holly Shopping marketing campaign meant that many of our retailers made it through the holiday season with better sales than 2019!
Our Art This Way program also had a banner year – 10 new murals Downtown, the 77 Steps light sculpture and pop-up activations like the plywood paint-out after Downtown Black Lives Matter protests and on the AEP Plaza. Art This Way also rallied to the call for small-scale public events with four free public Scavenger Hunts.
Now that we see a distant light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we’re hoping to see a renewal of festivals and baseball games in Downtown; Embassy Theater and Arts United light up with events again; a return of outdoor diners, crowds and full parking spaces. We’ll also learn some lessons from 2020 and see some of our on-the-fly programs continue. If 2020 taught us anything, it taught us that being creative is constantly necessary.
You’ll notice some new colors and designs in this Annual Report. We’ve always operated legally as the awkwardly named Economic Improvement District for the Downtown Fort Wayne Area. Most often people have thought of us in fewer words than that; the Downtown Improvement District. With the growth of Fort Wayne, a higher national profile and recognition for our city, as well as a growing Downtown Fort Wayne and #DTFW identity, we’re leaning into the Downtown Fort Wayne portion of our name. Economic Improvement is still the “what” of our mission, the size and shape of our District (our “where”) remains the same, as does the “how”demonstrated in this report, but we want to make sure that people know that our most mission critical element, our “why” and the reason we exist, is improving Downtown Fort Wayne.