Education & Workforce Development

JOHN KETZENBERGER Commentary: A line on city's stadium plan

January 31, 2005

Don't bet on gambling revenue as the source of money that nearly doubles the size of the Indiana Convention Center and builds a new stadium just across the railroad tracks. The smart money rides on the notion Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, will take up Mayor Bart Peterson's invitation to find another source of revenue to back the bonds for the $900 million project.

The chairman of the newly created Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee isn't being coy by revealing only that his solution will be "creative." He's being politically savvy by holding his cards close to his vest. Kenley knows many ideas will come to the fore before senators get a crack at it.

Some of those ideas, like bills by Reps. Luke Messer, R-Shelbyville, and Michael Murphy, R-Indianapolis, are derivations of Peterson's initial plan to tax new onearmed bandits at horse-racing facilities. Those bills may attract an amendment-or 30-from House Democrats.

A regional sales tax for the project, however, is a nonstarter.

Peterson, meanwhile, remains confident. Even as House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, began exercising his newfound influence by declaring the death of downtown slots, he did not perform last rites on the overall idea. Gov. Mitch Daniels didn't, either.

By blocking just one path, the two key officials left many open for the project's approval. That Bosma and Daniels did not foreclose all options amounts to tacit approval of Peterson's well-hatched plan.

For two years, the city's Democratic administration has built its case for expanding the convention center and building a new stadium. It's a case that appears resistant to a consultant's report that the entire convention industry is overbuilt. And it's likely to overcome the notion that building a new stadium is frivolous at best and irresponsible at worst with so many competing community needs.

Disregarding economic impact studies and their often spurious projections used by supporters and opponents alike, lawmakers, business interests and much of the community find the project compelling. The Capital Improvement Board has made it simple:

Add 100,000 square feet of exhibit space to the convention center, as was done in 2000, then promptly sell it out on a regular basis.

Make sure everyone understands major conventions are looking elsewhere because they're out of space here.

Lose a couple of those conventions.

Snare promises in writing that they'll return if the space materializes by 2010.

Compelling enough, but where to put it? Absent wrecking a well-placed state parking garage or bulldozing Victory Field at extreme costs, the only viable location is where the RCA Dome sits, CIB concluded.

But to help that medicine go down, CIB President Fred Glass led efforts to secure a commitment from the NCAA to host men's and women's Final Four tourneys and bring its national convention here once every five years.

And, oh, by the way, the NCAA will extend its headquarters lease with the city.

With a 2010 deadline and a strong argument for the project, it's now in the General Assembly's hands. Local officials need lawmakers' blessing to raise taxes on car rentals, hotel rooms and the like. They'll need the Legislature's approval to create mechanisms to redirect other taxes to back construction bonds. And they'll need to overcome the palpable Indianapolis vs. the state mentality in the Statehouse.

Enter Kenley, Harvard-educated lawyer and former owner of Kenley's Markets in Hamilton County. Since entering the Senate in 1992, Kenley has survived the vagaries of caucus politics and emerged a key player in this critical budget-building year.

Over the next few months, his ideas to change the school funding formula could have a profound effect on how education is delivered in Indiana. And Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne, is working with Kenley on a notion to combine the three county option income taxes into one, raise the cap and allow county officials to use it any way they see fit.

Whether they'll survive the legislative process isn't certain. And it's not a sure bet Kenley's idea-whatever it is-to fund the convention center/stadium project will pass. But the fact he's ready with an alternative means the betting line favors the project, big time.



Ketzenberger is managing editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send email to jketzenberger@ibj.com.
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