EDITORIAL: White Lodging delivers a winner for Indianapolis tourism

February 27, 2010

Hindsight is always 20/20, but in the case of the Marriott Place hotel complex, foresight was just as clear.

The first hotel in the $450 million collection of four hotels opened Feb. 3. The Fairfield Inn & Suites was joined by the Courtyard by Marriott and Springhill Suites Feb. 18. And the centerpiece of the development—the 1,005-room J.W. Marriott—opens next February.

The city’s choice of the Marriott Place development over two other convention hotel proposals in 2006 was clearly a five-star decision—for a couple of very important reasons.

For starters, the hotel complex—which is a key to growing the city’s convention and tourism sector—might have gotten way behind schedule or stayed on the drawing board had the city not chosen Merrillville’s White Lodging and locally based REI Investments to develop it.

City leaders couldn’t have known that the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression was right around the corner and would grind most development to a halt, but they chose as if they had a crystal ball.

Dean White, the billionaire founder of White Lodging, and his son, White Lodging President Bruce White, put their considerable financial might behind the project, money that would have been hard to come by otherwise as lenders abandoned commercial real estate.

The benefit of selecting White Lodging didn’t stop with Marriott Place itself. The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association announced at the end of January it’s getting $5.4 million from the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation Inc. to promote the city’s tourism and convention business. The ICVA gets about $700,000 in private contributions in a typical year.

The influx of cash couldn’t have come at a better time. Lucas Oil Stadium, Marriott Place, the new Indianapolis International Airport terminal and a $275 million expansion of the convention center are supposed to work hand in hand to lure more and bigger conventions to the city.

But the chances of the ICVA’s getting the additional marketing funds it needed to leverage the city’s new assets appeared slim until the Whites stepped up. The Capital Improvement Board, which operates the stadium and convention center and funds about 70 percent of ICVA’s budget, has been battling just to remain solvent.

Sure, White Lodging stands to benefit if Marriott Place is filled with paying customers lured here by the ICVA, but the family’s generosity wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

The Indianapolis Colts, for example, contributed only in a roundabout way to the $625 million Lucas Oil Stadium by “forgiving” a multimillion-dollar penalty the city was technically obligated to pay for breaking the team’s RCA Dome lease when taxpayers ponied up for a new stadium.

The Colts, of course, have made their contribution by fielding an outstanding team.

But more miraculous, perhaps, than the Colts’ gaudy record over the last decade is a mammoth hotel complex rising from the ground in the midst of an economic crisis.

The city’s decision to do business with White Lodging should pay off for years to come.•


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