- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - Fort Wayne has long been known as the City of Churches, but it might be developing a new reputation - as the City of Church Conventions.

In recent years, religious groups with sizable numbers have flocked here for regional and even national gatherings, says Dan O'Connell, president of VisitFortWayne, which markets the city as a tourist and meeting destination.

Last summer alone, four major religious bodies brought conventions to Fort Wayne within an eight-week span - the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Missionary Church, the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches and the United Brethren denomination, The Journal Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/1hmVa7i ).

Those groups comprised more than 2,700 people and generated $1.6 million in direct spending, O'Connell says, and they’re just a small part of the picture.

Seven other groups of 200 or more people - including the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers and Youth for Christ - all met last year at the Grand Wayne Center. Meanwhile, Memorial Coliseum hosted several Christian concerts and other events that attracted thousands each.

Smaller groups met in hotels, on college or seminary campuses or at individual churches without using the services of VisitFortWayne.

Groups included the National Association of Burmese Catholics, which brought more than 1,000 people from around the United States to Fort Wayne in September for events that included a Mass that nearly filled the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Another long-standing group consists of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod scholars, pastors and laypeople from around the world who meet about 500-strong each January at a symposia series at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne.

The trend, tourism officials say, is shaping up to continue.

Five groups’ events have been booked for this year at the Coliseum, the Grand Wayne Center and Hotel Fort Wayne, with six more scheduled for 2015 and early 2016. More bookings for all three years are still being negotiated, officials say.

While the number of gatherings for 2014 is smaller than 2013’s, planners estimate that attendees at this year’s already-scheduled events will more than triple to 20,680. By the end of 2015, the already-booked events are expected to generate about $3.2 million for the local economy.

Perhaps the biggest coup for 2014, planners say, is the booking of Living Proof Live, the conference arm of Beth Moore, a nationally popular TV Bible teacher who previously has had sold-out events in Indianapolis.

Moore will appear Sept. 13 at the Coliseum and is expected to attract more than 12,000 people, says Randy Brown, the Coliseum’s executive vice president and general manager.

Also scheduled is a worldwide simulcast through a satellite hook-up the facility can accommodate, he says.

“Part of what makes the Coliseum so attractive is the versatility of the building,” Brown explains.

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