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Visible progress in the city hides other troubles

May 18, 2009

Indianapolis still looks like a city with momentum, despite the dismal economy. But appearances can be deceiving.

A quick tour reveals what would seem to be progress. One wouldn't expect to see construction cranes swinging over downtown, not with bank credit frozen and the commercial real estate sector bracing for a wave of foreclosures later this year. But swing they do over the 1,600-room J.W. Marriott hotel complex being built to support the expanding Indiana Convention Center.

With city government strapped for funds, encountering a major infrastructure project that isn't funded with federal stimulus dollars is a surprise. Yet several streets in the northeast quadrant of downtown are clogged with front loaders and traffic cones thanks to a long-promised extension of the Cultural Trail.

Numerous real estate projects written about in the pages of IBJ in the last two years are history, or, at best, indefinitely delayed, courtesy of the national economic meltdown. But the convention center hotel and trail extension are proof things here haven't completely ground to a halt.

The key with both projects, of course, is that they are mostly the result of deep-pocketed private interests. The J.W. Marriott project is happening largely because of the financial wherewithal of Merrillville-based White Lodging, which, as co-developer with local REI Investments, is pumping buckets of cash into the $425 million complex.

It's well-known that the Cultural Trail is primarily a philanthropic endeavor. Gene and Marilyn Glick contributed $15 million toward the $55 million, eight-mile loop that will tie together numerous downtown cultural sites. A collection of other private donors is paying most of the balance.

Both projects represent huge investments. But to succeed in the long run, both require state and local governments to make prudent decisions about larger issues affecting the city and central Indiana.

For starters, will the Legislature in its special session contend with the Capital Improvement Board financial crisis? If local officials aren't given the tools to raise more money, the entity that runs the Convention Center, Lucas Oil Stadium and Conseco Fieldhouse could go bankrupt, putting the region's convention and tourism industry, not to mention the grand new hotel intended to serve it, at risk.

It won't be a surprise to anyone if most or all of the money for the CIB fix comes from Marion County. That raises another looming issue: the county's growing tax burden. When that tax burden is too much to bear, people and businesses pack up and move. Marion County, which is still an economic engine for the state, will become a liability if we can't agree on a way to share the burden.

Regional thinking is also the key to improving our woeful public transportation system, which is becoming a more glaring liability as other cities our size figure out how to provide what Indianapolis and its neighbors can't.

In this economy, we're fortunate to have even the trappings of progress. We hope the leadership exists to make sure the money being poured into those improvements doesn't go to waste.
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