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TOM HARTON Commentary: Driving the distance for the basics

July 17, 2006

I recently called my doctor's office hoping he could squeeze me in to diagnose a minor, but annoying, health problem. His nurse informed me I wouldn't be able to get an appointment for at least three days. She suggested I go to an immediate-care facility if I needed attention right away.

I was surprised the doctor couldn't see me, but I appreciated the nurse's candor. She knew better than to cheerfully suggest an appointment days in the future, by which time my malady would surely have run its course or driven me crazy. So I set out to locate an immediate-care storefront downtown, near home and office. I first looked up in the phone book Community Hospital's Medcheck. Turns out all the Medchecks are in the 'burbs. So I tried the other local hospital systems. No luck. Nothing downtown. Nothing in Broad Ripple. And, of course, nothing in Irvington. Aside from a few clinics intended for low-income folks who don't have transportation or the means to pay, there's no immediate care in the old city limits unless you show up at an emergency room. Sure, there's a world-class medical center. But if you're middle-class and feeling crummy-but not critical-and you need quick medical attention, you have to burn some of that infamous $3-a-gallon gas to get relief. All of which made me think about other goods and services that are absent or scarce in a downtown that's supposed to have it goin' on. Downtown is beautiful, of course, and its attributes are well-documented, but there's still a ways to go to make it truly full-service. You can buy clothing and food downtown. You can get hardware now, thanks to Fusek's True Value at Lockerbie Marketplace. But there's plenty missing. Try finding downtown, at a reasonable price or in plentiful supply, any of the following: sheets towels electronics home furnishings pie plates athletic supporters toys glassware cutlery sporting goods

a movie theater with stadium seating (and a courteous clientele)

a public outdoor swimming pool.

Some of these things are available if you search and are willing to pay any price, but most are missing altogether. (Send any additions to the list to tharton@ibj.com.)

Thanks to Bike Line, which opened earlier this year, you can buy a bicycle downtown. But you'd take your life in your hands if you tried to ride it as far as you'd have to go to get some of what's listed above.

Most of what's missing isn't in demand among convention-goers, visiting sports fans and others who pass through our attractive, clean, compact, attraction-rich center city. But what about the people who live downtown?

We've been told for years that, when the downtown residential population gets to a certain point, convenience retail and assorted services will follow. Latest estimates from the city's 20-year master plan are that 20,000 people now live in the Regional Center-roughly that area from Eli Lilly and Co.'s corporate campus north to 16th Street and from interstates 65/70 west to White River. The number is likely to swell as people buy or rent the approximately 2,000 residential units under construction or on the drawing board. And let's not discount the spending power of the 125,000 or so who come into downtown every day for work.

Don't these numbers provide enough demand for basic kitchen cutlery or a quick cure? Apparently not. Or maybe we're so well-trained to hop in the car and drive every time we need something that retailers have no incentive to stray from their suburban formulas.

We won't find out until retailers have some retail space to choose from.

Unfortunately, the two best chances for that kind of space are far from completion. Simon Property Group Inc. has enough clout that it could have created a hotbed of housing, office and neighborhood retail at the old Market Square Arena site, had it found a way to build its headquarters there. Instead, the site is in the hands of a group struggling to get the job done. And the old Coca-Cola bottling facility at the east end of Mass Ave won't be available for development unless some creative developer finds a place for Indianapolis Public Schools' acres of school buses.

In the meantime, downtown dwellers can only dream-and drive long distances for what they need.



Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.
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