How rural Indiana small business owners are turning their town into a wedding destination

If you’re looking for “big city convenience, at a small-town price” for your wedding, Wabash, Ind., might be the place to go, according to Lisa Downs, head of the WED Wabash endeavor.

Downs is the owner of the Wabash-based bridal shop, Ellen's Bridal and Dress Boutique. A few years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she began partnering with several other local businesses to brand their rural community as a small-town wedding destination. Together, they launched WED Wabash officially in February 2021, on the tail end of the first year of the pandemic. In some ways, Downs says the quarantine shutdown gave her team of small business owners the time they needed to coordinate.

"Running a small business is more than a full-time job, so finding the time for all of us to work on this was hard," Downs says. "During the pandemic, we were finally able to get together and create a master business plan, which is how we were able to launch successfully."

Lisa Downs, owner of Ellen's Bridal & Dress Boutique, talks with a bride's mother during an appointment.

Downs attributes the initial concept for WED Wabash to Small Business Revolution, an Emmy-nominated TV series that reaches out to local businesses in small towns across the U.S. and helps them rebrand and revitalize. When Wabash was chosen as their destination in 2016, Ellen's Bridal was one of six business to receive part of the $500,000-dollar donation and mentorship.

"When I received the call saying we'd been chosen, I thought to myself, 'They're going to save this business,’" Downs says.

The Yes Wall at Ellen's Bridal & Dress Boutique in Wabash.

The bridal shop received a rebranding and a remodel, along with guidance from business experts on marketing and the power of reviews. It was during these conversations that the idea of WED Wabash was born.

"Robert Herjavec, from ‘Shark Tank,’ was there, and he was like 'There are so many beautiful wedding vendors here. Why don't you all come together?'" Downs recalls.

A black wedding dress at Ellen's Bridal & Dress Boutique in Wabash.

While you might say she “fell in love” with the concept, there was still a matter of gathering the staffing and the time to create an organized wedding destination. At the same time, Ellen's Bridal was undergoing changes of its own.

The bridal shop began as a wedding and prom dress consignment shop in 2012 when Downs was tired of her previous career as a paralegal and searching for something to do with her daughter's old formal dresses from high school.

Since high school, Downs has felt she had an eye for fashion, so she began reaching out to other moms in the Wabash area and gathering their daughters’ discarded dresses to open her consignment shop. But after a few years, the resale market became crowded. 

Bridal Stylist Morgan L. Miller works on steaming a black wedding dress at Ellen's Bridal & Dress Boutique.

Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and other "do-it-yourself online used clothing stores" were taking off. To survive, Ellen's Bridal transitioned to selling only new and only bridal dresses.

"Bridal is a year-round need, whereas prom is just seasonal," Downs says. “While I do sometimes miss working with the younger girls, I love bridal, and I love empowering women by finding them the dress they love."

Lisa Downs, owner of Ellen's Bridal & Dress Boutique, helps customer Bailey Lundmark with a dress she is trying on

Now, thanks to WED Wabash, this passion for serving couples extends to all aspects of the wedding planning process. The website-based venture charges a $50 membership fee and functions as a guide to help couples experience all that Wabash has to offer, from venues to caterers and more, complete with vendor discounts and VIP treatment. You can still work with any of the WED Wabash vendors without a membership, Downs says. However, members do enjoy special perks. They also get access to the WED Walk, a pop-up event where WED Wabash vendors set up booths along a street downtown for couples to explore.

Despite the initial membership fee, many couples who utilize the program end up saving money in the long run. Just ask Bailey Lundmark, a Wabash-born and raised bride, who signed up for WED Wabash as a way to support small businesses on her big day.

"I've lived in Wabash my entire life, and I knew from the moment I became engaged that I wanted to stay local," Lundmark says. "I reached out to Ellen's and became a member of WED Wabash. I made back the cost of membership fee in discounts at my first vendor.”

Bride Bailey Lundmark looks at dresses available at Ellen's Bridal & Dress Boutique.

Another benefit of small-town weddings is less stress and coordinating on behalf of the couple or the wedding planner. While Lundmark already knew many of the local wedding vendors from growing up in Wabash, the WED Walk gave her a one-stop place to connect with them and begin the planning process.

"We found most of our vendors on that walk," Lundmark says. "Having them all in one place to talk face to face made the decision a lot easier than having to search them all out myself.”

Bride Bailey Lundmark shows off a wedding dress she tried on at Ellen's Bridal & Dress Boutique.

Along with convenience, WED Wabash offers couples a variety of unique locations for their weddings complete with small-town charm and big-city vibes. 

Jennifer Bailey, a vendor with WED Wabash, owns two popular rental locations in the area, the Carriage House and the Sanctuary. The 8,000-square-foot Sanctuary, in particular, works well for large groups with its spacious common areas, ideal for family stays, rehearsal dinners, and photos. Built in 1903, the venue was formerly a church and still has its original stained glass windows.

“Wabash is the perfect location for a couple looking to have a memorable wedding weekend,” Bailey says. “Wabash provides not only a storybook town to host friends and family, but it provides a welcoming warmth to each event held in Wabash.”

Jennifer Bailey on the main floor of her Airbnb the Sanctuary in Wabash.

For out-of-towners, there are plenty of non-wedding-related small businesses lining the streets of downtown Wabash to entertain guests before and after the event, too. According to Downs, the Wabash Visitor’s Center is able to arrange a welcome packet to be put in guests’ hotel rooms, at the request of the couple, filled with amenities and attractions to keep the friends and family busy. 

Ultimately, the mission of WED Wabash is to give small businesses owners an opportunity to collaborate for the common good and to share the benefits and the beauty of the place they call home.

“Wabash is a lovely place to experience,” Downs says. “I’m certain that any couple who chooses our town as their wedding location will fall just as in love with it as we all are.”

Wabash is the focus of a new Partner City series in Input Fort Wayne underwritten by Visit Wabash County and the Honeywell Foundation. This series will capture the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.