In the final years of his life, Mel Simon became a philanthropist of national repute. Headline gifts included $50 million
for Indiana University and $17 million for Riley Hospital for Children.
Mel’s largesse came to mind as we began pondering the future of Indianapolis’ troubled library system. At the same time Mel’s brother Herb has come to the city hat in hand seeking help for the ailing Indiana Pacers, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library board is contemplating closing six branches.
Mel, who died last year at age 82, isn’t around to make a game-changing donation to the library’s foundation that would put the system on solid, long-term financial footing. But perhaps it’s time for Herb—a billionaire like his brother—to burnish his own credentials as a philanthropist who makes the city a better place to live and work.
It’s not realistic to expect Herb, the 75-year-old co-founder of Simon Property Group, to run the Pacers without regard to the bottom line. He didn’t achieve what he has in business with that mind-set. And keeping the team here for decades to come necessitates that it operate under a viable business model.
But philanthropy is different. A donation into an endowment that helps cover library operating expenses would have an impact on quality of life in Indianapolis far beyond his lifetime. And it would create good will for Herb and the Pacers at one of the most critical junctures in the franchise’s history.
It’s easy to talk about how other people should spend their money, of course. And the Pacers’ and library’s financial woes aren’t really related. It’s not as if a rescue package for the team would come from the same pot of money as funds to keep the lights on and doors open at library branches.
Still, we have this nagging feeling that if the branches close but the Pacers get their money, this community has its priorities out of whack.
Some of the branches slated for closing sit in poor neighborhoods, providing a haven for young people who have ample opportunity to find trouble. It’s hard to rationalize shuttering those sites but bailing out a rich sports-team owner.
The Simon family already has demonstrated a commitment to helping the less fortunate. Its Simon Youth Foundation focuses on providing educational opportunities to at-risk youth, and the Pacers Foundation funds programs that help kids make good life choices.
Herb Simon himself is a voracious reader. He recently purchased Kirkus Reviews, a book-review magazine, saying his “love of books makes me want to be part of the solution for the [troubled] book publishing industry.”
So perhaps Herb’s making a generous gift for the library isn’t just wishful thinking. And it might make business sense as well. Indianapolis residents never are going to be wild about a Pacers bailout, especially at a time the economy is sputtering and many are struggling to feed their families and pay their bills. But it would go over better if the team owner made a donation demonstrating his deep concern for the broader community.•
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