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Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and Lilly team up on I-70 landscaping project

May 18, 2009

Some of Indianapolis' main entrances from Interstate 70 are in line for a $2 million makeover.

Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and Eli Lilly and Co. will team up over the next two years to install landscaping at six interchanges between the airport and downtown.

"Our board has talked about the complete lack of inspiration and major ugliness on that major gateway to our city for 20 years," said David Forsell, executive director of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.

The project begins May 20 when an army of Lilly employees descends on the Holt Road interchange to plant three acres in flowers, grasses and trees. The work is part of the global Lilly Day of Service, which will involve 9,500 employees at more than 50 sites around Indianapolis.

Forsell said Keep Indianapolis Beautiful didn't have the resources to tackle I-70 until Lilly came looking for a place that thousands of its employees could volunteer on a single day.

Considering the logistical challenges, Lilly turned to KIB, which is in the business of deploying volunteers to clean up litter and install plants around the city. "We needed a very experienced partner," said Rob Smith, director of corporate responsibility and president of the $80 million Lilly Foundation.

"It's like their previous engagements on steroids," Forsell said. "It's mindboggling."

Lilly launched its first day of service in May 2008 after a full year of planning. Lilly provides an $800,000 budget to buy plants, hire professionals for assistance, and to cover the salary of KIB staff member Mark Adler, who was hired specifically to coordinate Lilly's event.

Forsell said that once he and his staff got over the size of the project, they started thinking about ways to take advantage of the opportunity.

Sprucing up I-70 was a natural choice. The airport-to-downtown corridor carries 200,000 cars a day. It's been on the city's virtual to-do list since Indianapolis hosted the Pan Am Games in 1987, Forsell said.

Now KIB is hoping to have the I-70 beautification completed in time for the 2012 Super Bowl.

Lilly has committed to spending $1 million on the I-70 interchanges by May 2011. Late last year, the Indiana Department of Transportation awarded a $1 million matching grant through the federal transportation enhancement program.

Holt Road will serve as a pilot project. Forsell said he hopes to start holding meetings with west-side neighborhood groups and develop detailed plans for the remaining five interchanges this summer.

The other five interchanges are Ronald Reagan Parkway, Sam Jones Expressway, Harding Street, West Street and Illinois/ McCarty Street.

Beth Gibson, community building coordinator at the West Indianapolis Development Corp., said locals are eager to make an impression on visitors.

"We want them to know it's not just this old, tired, urban neighborhood," she said.

Once the landscaping is installed on Harding Street, Gibson said, the neighborhood-based group will put up a welcome sign with its slogan, "People, power, progress."

Before KIB can invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in plants and trees for future interchanges, it has to find corporate sponsors willing to pay for the ongoing maintenance.

Lilly has agreed to adopt the Holt Road interchange. On this year's Day of Service, nearly 1,500 volunteers, working in two shifts, will plant 16,000 flowers and grasses and 150 small trees. The plants account for most of the $135,000 budget, Adler said.

Another $30,000 is budgeted for installing Herron School of Art and Design graduate student Kathryn Armstrong's sculpture, pending approval from the Federal Highway Administration.

If public art is allowed in the project, Forsell said, that would be another step toward remaking the whole city's image.

"Indianapolis is not perceived as being high on the charts in terms of environment and culture," he said.

State Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm was involved in the city's quest to become an amateur sports hub, and more recently to boost its reputation for arts. He said it's exciting to hear that as much as $2 million could be spent on I-70 interchanges.

"As you know, there are a zillion things we like to fund around here," he said.

The barren interstate corridor had to wait its turn while city leaders took on long-term tasks such as building out the IUPUI campus and transforming downtown, Boehm said. "It's now an unattended wart on an otherwise attractive cityscape."

With its Day of Service, Lilly is also trying to make a strong first impression.

"It's about engagement and motivation of a work force," Smith said. "People want to work for companies that have a positive social agenda, including opportunities to serve their community."

The Day of Service and other incentives for volunteerism are part of an overall recruitment and retention plan Lilly devised because it's competing for talent with big-city drug companies.

"Innovation is our oxygen," Smith said. "We have to have the best and brightest working at our company. If we don't keep a constant flow of innovation, we'll be out of business."

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