The News-Sentinel, August 9, 2011, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Can wine, cigar club spark renewal at ballpark?
Owners hope it inspires other private investment. - A column by Kevin Leininger
Since the mostly taxpayer-funded Parkview Field opened downtown three seasons ago, the $30 million ballpark has largely failed to attract the hoped-for stream of private investment to the immediate area. But two local businessmen hope to change that — and in the process continue the legacy of a failed experiment that deserved a better fate.
Sometime before the TinCaps' next Opening Day, Rudolph “Rudy” Mahara and Hans Sheridan plan to open a beer, wine and cigar bar in a restored Victorian house at 409 W. Brackenridge St. that might seem unremarkable but for two things:
The two men hope the project, just a block or so southwest of Parkview Field, will inspire others to make similar investments and eventually revive what remains a partially blighted area despite the city's largesse.
The still-unnamed bar will feature many remnants of the Esquire Cigar Club, which for 17 often-tumultuous months operated in a lovingly remodeled 19th-century schoolhouse off Illinois Road until financial and family issues forced owner Dan Hoffman to pull the plug in January.
“There's no way this would have happened if not for Dan,” said Mahara, who was among the Esquire's first members but didn't have wine and cigars in mind when he paid about $30,000 for the house on Brackenridge last year.
“I was on the fence about (building) Parkview Field. But the first time I went to a TinCaps game I thought, 'What a jewel.' Then I walked out and looked around the neighborhood,” said Mahara, president of Strategic Benefits Consultants North East. What Mahara saw didn't sparkle nearly so brightly, so when he noticed the house for sale some time later, he decided its restoration might inspire others to do the same.
Just one problem: Mahara wasn't sure relocating his financial-services firm to a neighborhood in need of a makeover would be good for business. So he and Sheridan, a fellow cigar enthusiast and director of marketing and client development at Maraha's firm, looked around for Plan B.
Mahara found it in his fond memories of the Esquire, with a little help from his wife, who after some initial trepidation made a suggestion that will help make the business unique.
“We have a beer, wine and tobacco license, and concentrating on Indiana wines was Susan's idea,” said Mahara, noting that about 30 percent of Indiana's wineries sell their products commercially.
“The nice thing is that the house was never chopped up (into apartments), and still has many of its original features.” Restoration of the exterior, the design of which will be reviewed by city planners later this month, will cost about $40,000, and Sheridan said he hopes to receive a grant of $20,000 from the city's Redevelopment Commission. Sheridan is an ex-Fort Wayne Community Schools administrator who also served as Wayne High School principal.
The Esquire failed in part because its original business model ran afoul of the state Excise Police even before it opened. Because city law prohibits smoking in bars, Hoffman thought he could comply by allowing members to bring in their own liquor. When the state disagreed, membership suffered because — as every aficionado knows — a cigar in one hand is best enjoyed with something wet in the other.
Mahara said his business will comply with the law by offering catered food and beverages inside, with smoking outside, mostly in a “beer garden” on the backyard deck. Some of the furniture and fixtures will be familiar to Esquire patrons, but Mahara hopes the place will develop an identity and following of its own.
“There are 6,000 people a game just a few feet from our front door. Maybe some of them will get tired in the fifth inning (and want a beer and cigar),” said Mahara, who hopes to at least break even on the venture.
“This is mission-driven, a labor of love,” he said. “The neighborhood isn't 'there' yet, but we've met a lot of nice people here. The main thing is to fix up the area so that, maybe one day, it's overflowing with shops.”
That would be fine with city Redevelopment Director Greg Leatherman. “This is the kind of catalyst project you hope for when you do a project like Harrison Square (which included Parkview Field and other projects),” he said.
By Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel
Hans Sheridan, left, and Rudy Mahara hope their plan to fix this house at 409 W. Brackenridge St. into an upscale beer, wine and cigar bar will help spark a renewal around Parkview Field.