Opinion and Forefront

HUDNUT: Nordstrom loss is setback ... and opportunity

July 9, 2011

William H. HudnutWhen I first heard about the downtown Nordstrom store closing, of course I was disappointed. Our administration had worked diligently (and I had sweat a little political blood) to initiate the Circle Centre construction, a 17-year project from inception to completion. During the years I was mayor, this project involved acquiring the land, saving some of the historic buildings and facades, deciding on the best design, preparing the site, and beginning to build/rebuild in that large area of downtown. Circle Centre was not completed until after I left office.

We were more than pleased at the prospect of the Simon organization’s persuading the prestigious Nordstrom chain to come to town. I have felt ever since they arrived that Nordstrom would be a marvelous anchor for downtown, and a substantial addition to the Circle Centre project. Indeed, over the last 20 years or so, I have indicated that losing that store would, in my opinion, constitute a sizable misfortune for downtown.

Back in the 1980s, we had to meet the challenge of creating a downtown in Indianapolis that was bustling with activity, attractive, poised for more growth, and viable. The interconnections between the hotels, stores and convention center certainly helped in that regard. So did building the Hoosier Dome downtown, new hotels and eateries, the creation of White River State Park and the Indianapolis Zoo’s move there, expansion of certain state facilities, to say nothing of constructing Circle Centre (the planning for which began in the late 1970s) and having an experienced world-class organization like Simon managing it.

I remember during a recent National League of Cities convention escorting the Mayor of Washington, D.C., Tony Williams, into the Nordstrom store, where he bought a sweater and a pair of shoes. To me, that was exciting stuff.

But as we all know, times change. “New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth,” to quote the poet James Russell Lowell. When I was mayor, we were trying to prove that a downtown market existed and meet the challenges mentioned above. But through the three subsequent administrations of mayors Goldsmith, Peterson and Ballard, not only was the momentum maintained, but the challenge morphed into promoting a downtown whose image had changed from questionable to desirable. Not that everything was perfect, of course. Not that all the eateries and shops were brimming with customers all the time. But it was obvious progress had been made. India-no-place had become India-show-place.

Is losing Nordstrom a setback? Of course, in some ways. But in keeping with the spirit of forward-looking partnership in the city, it should also be looked upon as an opportunity for new economic development. Evidently, the facts of the matter are that the tourist/visitor clientele generated by the mall and convention center did not match up well with Nordstrom’s customer base in the long term. Evidently, changing times and tastes caught up with the original vision, and sales were declining—not uncommon in the retail world. Normal business, if you please.

But I hope a new anchor tenant will be found. It is my understanding that the city administration and the Simon organization are working toward that end. Simon is the world leader in operating enclosed shopping malls, and the city will be a determined partner in the search, so all is not lost. With all the redevelopment in downtown—the lofts and the apartments, the restaurants and the pubs, the offices, the hotels, Conseco Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium, the symphony, coupled with the activity generated by Indiana state government, the library and the American Legion, and additionally, the effort announced to re-purpose the old GM stamping plant—there seems to be plenty of reason to have confidence in the future of downtown.

The base has been laid for future change. A city that has a reputation for getting things done will do it again.•

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Hudnut, who served four terms as mayor of Indianapolis, is on the faculty at Georgetown University and is an urban affairs consultant. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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