Small Business

VIEWPOINT: When visionaries, bean counters collide

June 25, 2007

I am a dabbler.

The upside of dabbling is that one gets involved in a number of diverse projects throughout one's career. Some great successes, some galactic failures. Either way, the dabbler learns much about many things along the way.

One of the lessons learned in a life of dabbling is the unlikely symbiosis between visionaries and bean counters. Like particles of matter and anti-matter in the universe, one cannot exist without the other. And yet, their uncontrolled collision can be destructive.

I got this lesson while starting up a restaurant in Fort Wayne. Our task was to renovate a 125-year-old downtown textile warehouse into an upscale steakhouse. The budget: $750,000. The timeline: six months.

The outcome: $1.3 million and 11 months. And it came close to not happening at all.

Time dragged on. The money dwindled. The inevitable collision occurred. The visionaries wanted the restaurant to reach its conceptual potential while the bean counters, though supportive of the concept, wanted to get it open without anyone mortgaging a house. There were epic battles. In the end, we found a way to pay the tab without sacrificing the vision and, today, that property is a success and a motivator for downtown redevelopment.

Had we sacrificed the vision, we would not be in that enviable position. On this even my bean-counter partners agree. And the visionaries owe them a great debt for their patience and trust-even though the numbers were telling them otherwise.

Which brings us to some parallels between my project and the Indianapolis City Market:

Renovation of the City Market is behind schedule and over budget.

The hidden problems of renovating a century-old structure abound.

The vision for a new City Market is awesome-an anchor for the east side of downtown, and much like markets in Kansas City and Seattle.

Where the similarities end, however, is that failure to realize the City Market vision will have a far greater impact than the mere misfortune of a half-dozen dabblers.

Should the City Market project succumb to the temptation to reopen short of its vision, the fate of at least 25 Indianapolis small businesses may well be sealed. Existing vendors, who have patiently and supportively moved their businesses (many at great financial burden) during renovation, will be irreparably harmed and may simply close. New vendors who occupy the Market House will enter a space that falls far short of expectations.

Just east of the market, a new neighborhood is about to emerge. The demolition of the ramps to Interstate 70 will reunite the neighborhood. There is great potential for re-gentrification and revitalization. We are about to realize an upscale condo project on site of the old Market Square Arena. Each of these projects will be anchored and enhanced by a renovated City Market.

The overall economic impact of this project far outweighs the cost of making sure it reaches a successful completion. We're talking a couple of million dollars here. A spit in the ocean compared to three quarters of a billion for Lucas Oil Stadium or even the $25 million for the Super Bowl. It's a good project with great prospects for a return on investment.

Unless it falls short of the vision. Then it will be a black eye on a city known for getting stuff like this done and done well.

There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen-some are creating while others are, well, counting the beans. Both are vital and, if everyone's working from the same recipe, we should have all the ingredients we need to realize what we set out to do.



Smith is an Indianapolis writer, producer and frequent dabbler. He can be reached at jason@jtsmith.net.
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