Benner/Sports and Final Four and Legislature and Capital Improvement Board and Sporting Events and Government and Economic Development and Sports Business

Detroit reminds us not to squander what we have

April 13, 2009

On the morning of April 2, I spent three hours outside a crowded committee hearing room in the Statehouse, watching and listening to testimony regarding the funding problems of the Capital Improvement Board.

Much of the supporting testimony regarded the importance of sustaining and growing Indy's vibrant downtown.

When the hearing was over, I drove to Detroit for the NCAA's Men's Final Four.

There is a connection.

Hard hit by the weak economy, in particular the auto manufacturers that dominate that city, Detroit nonetheless did its very best to put on a great show for the thousands of fans. The good folks tried hard—really hard—to present their city as a warm, welcoming place. Volunteers were plentiful, cheerful and eager to please.

Surely, Motown received an unexpected boost from the presence of Michigan State University in the finals. And the influx of fans, who brought their wallets, represented dollars from heaven.

But in short order, the circus would leave town and Detroit would return to being Detroit, America's poster child for a city in decline, with high unemployment, urban blight, suburban flight, struggling schools, crime and decaying infrastructure.

At least that's the stereotype.

The leaders of Detroit have invested heavily in their urban core with the goal of attracting not only tourists, but residents. The riverfront near the Renaissance Center beckons with promise. An elevated people mover circulates downtown. Two gleaming sports venues—Ford Field (home of the Lions and the Final Four) and Comerica Park (home to the Tigers)—sit side-by-side.

The point is this: Detroit, for all its problems, has refused to merely accept its situation without fighting back. And sports—including the attraction of sporting events—have been a key component in changing both the mind-set of locals and the perception of visitors. Say what you want about Detroit, but in just the past few years, the city has hosted the Ryder Cup, the Super Bowl and now the Final Four.

Indeed, it was the decision to move the basketball court to the middle of Ford Field for a Michigan State/University of Kentucky game a few years back that inspired the NCAA to begin to think of expanding the seating requirements for future Final Fours to 70,000.

That said, it may be a while before a Final Four returns. Detroit has some basic logistical problems, including not enough hotel inventory downtown. Indeed, the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention was housed across the river in Windsor, Canada—in a casino hotel, of all places—creating time-consuming commutes for the coaches as they had to go back and forth through customs.

The location of Ford Field about 10 blocks from the downtown core also posed some problems, including one for a certain mayor who was the victim of a pickpocket during the long walk back to his hotel following the semifinals Saturday night.

(As an aside, that was a classic case of no good deed—Hizzoner trying to aid a person he believed to be stricken with a seizure—going unpunished, on top of another attempted good deed when the mayor declined IMPD security presence in Detroit to save the city money.)

But here's where I circle back to those Statehouse hearings regarding the Capital Improvement Board.

My prevailing thoughts upon returning from Detroit were how fortunate Indianapolis is when it comes to hosting these kinds of events, and how a thriving downtown is essential to (A) success of the region and (B) national perception.

Indianapolis already has what Detroit—once one of the great cities in America—is trying to re-create.

My fear is that we could put into play circumstances to lead us down the path to what Detroit has become. A downtown lost is not a downtown easily found again.

There are no easy, pain-free solutions, but a shared solution must be found. Yes, I know. Easier said than done.

In closing, I want to add my condolences to former Purdue University basketball coach Gene Keady on the passing of his wife, Pat. During my time covering the Boilermakers in the '80s and '90s, I got to know Pat well and appreciated her humor, candor and fierce loyalty to her husband. I also know that, during her extended illness, Gene showed a tender, loving compassion that was far removed from the gruff, tough guy we saw on the sidelines.
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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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