Sports strategy 'super' for downtown Indianapolis

2012-02-04T23:00:00Z 2012-02-05T23:50:06Z Sports strategy 'super' for downtown IndianapolisBy Dan Carden, (317) 637-9078
February 04, 2012 11:00 pm  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | If the hundreds of millions of people around the world watching Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday look closer, they'll see much more than a football game on their television screens.

They'll see the culmination of a 40-year strategy that turned a small Midwestern state capital with a dying downtown into the center of the sports world.

Indianapolis has drawn rave reviews this month from football fans, players and the media for Lucas Oil Stadium, the Super Bowl Village, convenient hotels, downtown restaurants and late-night entertainment all available within steps of one another.

None of that would exist but for an audacious 1970s decision by city, corporate and charitable leaders to use sports as the way to redevelop downtown and put the Circle City on the map.

"We decided Indianapolis wanted a heart, wanted activity right there at the heart of the city," said former Mayor Dick Lugar in the 2011 PBS documentary, "Naptown to Super City." Lugar, a Republican, has been a U.S. senator from Indiana since 1977.

Theodore Boehm, former head of the Indiana Sports Commission and a former justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, said the sports strategy was selected because it had the greatest possibility of bringing many people into the city over and over again.

It started with the Indiana Pacers. The pro basketball team, formed in 1967, played in the coliseum at the Indiana State Fairground, northeast of downtown.

In 1971, Mayor Lugar tapped into federal funds for money to build Market Square Arena, which brought nearly 20,000 people into downtown for basketball 40 nights a year.

More importantly, Lugar told PBS, the $23 million arena, which also was home to the 1980 Final Four, minor league hockey and hundreds of concerts, showed the sports strategy could work. 

Over the next 16 years, under Mayor Bill Hudnut, Indianapolis worked with Lilly Endowment to build new tennis, swimming and other sports facilities that brought amateur sports championships, the 1982 National Sports Festival and the 4,400 athletes of the 1987 Pan American Games to Indianapolis. 

"This made us more ambitious, because we knew that Indianapolis was big-league and that we were on trail of something that was very, very important for the interests of our city," Lugar said.

In 1982, the city broke ground on a domed football stadium called an "expansion" of the Indiana Convention Center. Two years later, the Colts relocated from Baltimore, and Indianapolis became an NFL city.

"That was the subtext of an awful lot of the progress we made around here," Boehm told PBS.

More people downtown more often created a need for new restaurants, bars and hotels, and businesses moved back downtown from the suburbs to be near those amenities.

Between 1978 and 1995, Indianapolis saw four skyscrapers built downtown, Circle Center Mall open, the creation of White River State Park and the Indianapolis Zoo and had a downtown teeming with office workers during the day and sports fans at night.

"If we hadn't done the sports over here, we wouldn't have had the economic development over here," Hudnut told PBS. 

Indianapolis has paid a price for its sports strategy.

Market Square Arena and the RCA Dome were replaced in recent years by the much costlier Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium. Tax money spent on those projects was not spent on amenities residents of other cities take for granted.

Columnist Steve Hammer of Indianapolis' NUVO newspaper said this week in an open letter to Super Bowl visitors that it hasn't been worth it.

"The football stadium where you will enjoy the Super Bowl was built just with you in mind," Hammer said. "We are being asked not to think about the schools that could have been built or the transportation system that could have been rejuvenated with the stadium money."

But other cities look at the stadiums and skyscrapers and Super Bowl made possible by Indianapolis' sports strategy and have decided to follow it themselves.

In October, the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau created a sports commission and will devote some $300,000 toward luring more sporting events to the Windy City.

Might a Chicago Super Bowl be on the horizon? Perhaps.

After all, who would have guessed Indianapolis would be a "super" city?

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