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TOM HARTON Commentary: City's improvement doesn't sink in

January 17, 2005

Dr. Pierre Tran, a former neuroscience researcher at Eli Lilly and Co., was lured from Indianapolis to a suburb of San Francisco recently by a small biotech firm and its ability to develop new drugs more quickly than pharmaceutical giants like Lilly. The region's diversity and "food culture" also played a role, Tran told the San Francisco Business Times in a story about where the Bay Area finds all the brainpower it needs to fuel its tech culture. Tran went on to explain that his in-laws are from France and "there's nothing for them to do in Indianapolis."

Three time zones and 3,000 miles to the east, Lee Jenkins, a sports columnist for The New York Times, observed the Peyton Manning hero worship at St. Elmo steakhouse a few hours after Manning broke Dan Marino's single-season passing record Dec. 26:

"[Manning's] aw-shucks image plays perfectly in Indianapolis, a Midwestern city with a rural ethic-where the football stadium is a couple of blocks from the basketball arena, which is a couple of blocks from a cluster of hotels, which is a couple of blocks from St. Elmo," Jenkins said in his Dec. 28 column. The column also observed that in this small-market NFL city, Manning is a hero "whose every accomplishment is celebrated over steak."

Nothing to do? We only eat steak?

For all the self-congratulation we hear for how far the city has come, for all the marketing, hard work and planning that's gone on here since the late 1960s to avoid becoming Des Moines or Omaha, people in New York and San Francisco and most points in between are still hearing that Indianapolis is small-town.

How can that be?

Because nothing's harder to change than stereotype, and because there's more than a grain of truth to what they say. And because that's just fine with a lot of us.

City fathers from Richard Lugar to Bart Peterson-backed by some sharp business minds, everyone's favorite endowment and a legion of volunteers-built the city's sports culture and rebuilt its downtown, which is the envy of many of our peer cities.

But sports and a well-planned downtown will get you only so far in the perception-changing business. In fact, our sports culture sometimes feeds the stereotype. Just ask the perception-sensitive how it feels when one of the major networks begins its telecast of an NBA or NCAA playoff game from Indianapolis with the time-worn "Hoosiers" scene the rest of the country expects from us: the farm kid shooting the ball at a rusty rim by the light of a setting sun.

Nothing sums up our local conundrum better than the rural lead-in to a very urban event. Are we rural, like the kid from Hickory, or are we urban, like the "fieldhouse" filled with blaring rap music and big-city excitement? We're both; therefore, we're neither.

Does it matter? It depends on whom you ask.

The slow pace, the familiarity, the lack of clearly defined reputation, suits some people just fine. The city is a comfortable, affordable place that's great for raising kids. And for those who are so inclined, ample space makes it easy to avoid people who look, act and believe things different from the majority.

But there's another faction-those who say being a family-friendly city with a smattering of cultural offerings and a Hall of Fame quarterback is great but isn't good enough.

These people want effective public transportation, innovative architecture, pleasing streetscapes and a robust artistic community-because these are hallmarks of cities that attract the best and brightest. The best and brightest, the theory goes, will use their good ideas to create wealth and solve problems.

Now an interesting era dawns, one that might test that theory.

Gov. Mitch Daniels is brimming with ideas for creating wealth and solving problems, but he's no aesthete. The new governor is all about productivity, efficiency and smart government that sets the table for a wealth-creating, private-sector feast. If the feast calls for steak, so be it.

Can the new governor and his regime lift the economy of the state and its capital without the cultural trimmings? Maybe the cultural change will flow from the wealth. It'll be interesting for us to see, even if the people on the coasts never notice.



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