Take note Detroit, sports teams can save a city

The Indy 500 and other sporting events have brought Indianapolis into pole position.
The Indy 500 and other sporting events have brought Indianapolis into pole position.
Image: Reuters/Matt Sullivan
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The American press is obsessed with stories of failure, disaster, catastrophe, and decay. As a result, it rarely pays close attention to success. But just as failure teaches people what not to do, success provides models for emulation.

The largest municipal failure of the past three decades is Detroit. The home of the auto industry and Motown Records took a steep slide in bankruptcy  its services nonexistent, its culture an embarrassing juxtaposition of its former self. Dissections of Detroit’s decline will abound in the next few months and years. Studies of a similarly sized city to its south—Indianapolis—will be harder to find, and that means America will have missed a crucial lesson in urban revitalization, economic development, and smart, effective politics.

Indianapolis is the opposite of Detroit.

In the 1960s, visitors and all but the most loyal residents gave it the nickname “Nap Town.” The joke being that the only thing to do in Indianapolis is take a nap. There were two dining options in the entire downtown section of the city, and most office buildings were empty—long abandoned for other parts of the state or country where a human pulse was reachable somewhere in a five-mile radius.

The city’s lone claim to fame—its solitary attraction—was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; the host of the Indy 500. Fred Glass, former Indiana University Athletic Director, said that during the 60s, Indianapolis was a “racetrack in the middle of a cornfield.”Now, Indianapolis is still the host of the Indy 500, but it is also home to an NBA team, an NFL franchise, a minor baseball team, 200 restaurants, 300 retail shops, 28 museums and galleries, and 12 performing arts theaters. All of these entertainment venues and service businesses attract a growing market of Indiana visitors and out-of-state tourists. Annual attendance at downtown leisure attractions has increased 84% since 1994, while major businesses and educational institutions have taken notice and responded with money and labor.Dozens of major corporations have made downtown Indianapolis their headquarters, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Butler University have both consistently grown, in physical space and student population, in the past two decades, and the small, Midwest city has earned the surprising reputation as a “tech hotbed,” in the words of industry publication, Digital Relevance. Indianapolis now has, in its city limits, 70 tech firms.

The New York Times praised Indianapolis’ “thriving culture scene,” while the Los Angeles Times called the success of its revitalization project, “breathtaking.”

The unemployment rates in Indiana and Indianapolis are lower than the national average, and both the state and city have sizable budget surpluses.

The obvious question, then, especially in the face of unmitigated fiscal devastation in Detroit, Cleveland, and many other smaller Midwest cities, is how did they do it?

The Indianapolis plan for resurrection required much more than prayer. Beginning in the 1970s, under a visionary, Republican Mayor—William Hudnut—and Otis Bowen, a cooperative and moderate Republican Governor, Indianapolis sought to become the sports capital of the Midwest, a flytrap for business investment, and a tourist destination.

Hudnut and Bowen were both unconventional men who took uncharted courses into politics. Neither was an attorney with connections. Hudnut was a Presbyterian minister, and Bowen, a doctor. Their practical experience in crises of real intensity necessitating compromise—there are no ideological solutions to budget trouble or health problems—gave them the vantage point necessary to look into the long term, and problem solve accordingly, rather than merely consider what is best in the immediate future for voting base constituencies.Indianapolis civic leaders first decided to take what already attracted people to their city—sports entertainment—and enlarge and expand it go beyond merely one annual event.Fred Glass said that the city’s strategy is comparable to the memorable and mysterious advice from Field of Dreams—”If you build it, they will come.”The city oversaw the construction of a new basketball arena for its NBA Franchise, a downtown baseball stadium for its Triple A minor league baseball team, and in the 1970s, Mayor Hudnut was able to convince the Baltimore Colts to move to Indianapolis. The latter effort led to the culmination of the downtown revitalization when in 2006, the city hosted the Super Bowl.”Top down” economic development schemes have often failed in other cities. Sports stadiums and convention centers rarely deliver on their utopic promises of business stimulation and tourism renewal, but in Indianapolis, the plan was not merely governmental investment. It was cross-sector partnership. The Indianapolis city government and the Indiana state government formed an alliance with Eli Lilly, and other large corporations in the state, to co-fund large scale projects.

The public-private partnership proved successful not only in sports, but also in attracting nightlife activity and encouraging entrepreneurship. The city’s Circle Centre, for example, took money from both the government and business to beautify the cross section of downtown with a large monument and water fountain. Shops, restaurants, and bars now surround the aesthetic triumph. Indianapolis has the second largest collection of urban monuments in the country. The city looks good, but it also feels good for visitors and residents.Indiana’s government also approved funding for the construction and opening of the country’s largest Children’s Museum, and $201 million in IUPUI expansion projects.

Environmental improvement, localized infusion of funds, and significant stimulus of educational and cultural institutions are typically part of the liberal manual for urbanization and development, but as the examples of Cleveland, Ohio and Gary, Indiana, and other cities demonstrate, large attractions bring brief visitors, not investors and business owners. Additional incentives are essential for ensuring that entrepreneurs, real estate moguls, and other people with capital to spend take advantage of opportunities for potential profit that sports stadiums, music theaters, and museums offer.

CNBC recently named Indiana the fifth best state for business in America. In 2007, then Governor Mitch Daniels signed the biggest property tax cut in the state’s history, and before that, the Indiana state legislature revoked collective bargaining rights from Indiana’s public sector unions—a controversial, but perhaps, crucial move considering how pension obligations are crushing Detroit, Newark, and even Chicago. Indiana kept tax rates and regulatory fees low for decades throughout its revitalization effort. A cursory glance at Indianapolis “before” and “after” is as revelatory as the split scene photo montage in a commercial for Weight Watchers.

Mayor Greg Ballard helped balance the budget in Indianapolis by forming partnerships with private businesses and firms in the reorganization in public services. Solid waste pickup is one area where the city has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by streamlining services, but not reducing them. Complaints to the solid waste pickup service have dropped by twenty percent since Ballard authorized the deal in 2009. The city, and more importantly, the citizens benefit.

Taking a short tour through the new Indianapolis reveals the fallacy of simple solutions to complex problems. Brain dead slogans like “cut taxes” or “more stimulus,” without compromise and context, will lead only to disappointment and despair with all politics and governmental action.

Writer and former philosophy professor Edward R. Ward indicts America for having a “game show mentality.” Too many Americans expect reward without risk, desire superficial stimuli to the senses without commitment or depth, and demand instant gratification. If a program does not show results in a few years, or even a few months, critics relegate it to the basement of intellectual failure, and gain political influence by shaming and humiliating its designers.

The revitalization of Indianapolis did not enable the bruised city to pick itself up off the mat for many years, and even now, at over forty years into it, the city is still not out of the ring.

Indianapolis, unlike Detroit, tells a story of hope and terror. There is hope if American leaders and voters can overcome the terror of waiting patiently for results, compromising ideology for principle, and cooperating with the “enemy” for a purpose more meaningful and a goal more laudable than the advancement of one’s own career.

It turns out that the clichés celebrating bipartisanship, patience, and sustained effort attached to a long term vision in politics are true, but so are the clichés that make it clear most Americans would rather insult the ideas of their opponents than understand them. So, where does that leave the country? On a track in the middle of a cornfield, caught in a pointless race with no finish line.

It might be time to stop running in circles.

David Masciotra is author of the forthcoming All That We Learned About Livin’: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp and author of Against Traffic: Essays On Politics and Identity. He is a columnist for the Indianapolis Star and has written for the Daily Beast and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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