Twenty years ago, 60 colleagues and I—marketers and PR professionals all—were asked to volunteer for a tiny not-for-profit called Indianapolis Downtown Inc. Dubbed the “marketing board,” our role was to sell our city’s center to residents and visitors far and wide.
The job required considerable manpower and brainpower because, in all candor, there wasn’t much to sell. Where Circle Centre now stands, there were two giant holes in the ground. These excavations were known, affectionately, as “Hudnut’s holes” after former Mayor Bill Hudnut, who envisioned the project, cleared the site, then saw it suffer a lengthy and much-maligned financing delay.
Back then, St. Elmo’s Steak House was the only downtown restaurant of consequence; the Hyatt Regency was the biggest hotel; and the Canterbury was famous, not for its hospitality, but as the place where boxer Mike Tyson raped Desiree Washington.
To be sure, we had the RCA Dome, Market Square Arena, the Colts, the Pacers, the zoo, the symphony and the IRT. But these tended to be do-’em-and-leave attractions. No meal beforehand. No drink afterward. No overnight stay. Because there weren’t many places to make it a day-, afternoon-, or weekend-long venture.
As for worker bees, the mile square between North, South, East and West streets was an 8-to-5 kind of place. And when we surveyed folks from Carmel and Fishers, Avon and Greenwood about visiting the heart of Indianapolis, they often used the phrase, “We don’t want to go all the way downtown.”
In the face of this stark reality, we all escaped to the Indianapolis Zoo one morning for a marketing board retreat. It was the usual brainstorming endeavor—product improvements here, special events there, ads we could run, stories we could pitch, brochures we could print.
It took a lot more than an ad campaign to get us to this point—to what we pulled off last weekend.
As my wife and I walked through the Super Bowl mayhem—down Meridian, past Monument Circle, across Georgia, up Capitol (with the zipline zooming overhead), through the Convention Center, over to the JW Marriott, into White River State Park, and past the IUPUI campus—I shook my head in wonder at how far we’ve come.
In the aftermath of the big game, the reviews of our city and our people have been glowing. As one commentator said, Indianapolis “crushed it.”
Now, there’s talk of landing another Super Bowl sometime soon. There’s talk of landing major conventions, thanks to meeting planners who’ve seen that we can handle the biggest spectacle in sports. There’s talk of increased tourism and more economic development deals.
It’s like actress Sally Field taking to the Oscar stage and proclaiming: “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”
As much as I love the outside accolades, I think there’s an even more significant outcome of Super Bowl XLVI: self-respect.
Flying to Oakland, Calif., the Friday before the big game, I glanced over at my seatmate, who was reading a USA Today preview about Indianapolis’ role as Super Bowl host.
The story started off with Milan High School basketball legend Bobby Plump comparing our city to his famous last shot for the state championship.
“It really is like David vs. Goliath,” Plump said.
Then there was the Connecticut business traveler, interviewed at St. Elmo, who said, “While you don’t hear anything bad about Indianapolis, do you hear about anything really great?”
Most telling was a quote from Genesis McKiernan-Allen, an organic farmer and waitress at the restaurant Recess, who told USA Today, “The state has an inferiority complex, and everyone’s nervous that we’re going to screw this up.”
Well, Genesis, we didn’t. On the contrary (and at the risk of mixing sports metaphors), we hit it out of the park.
And while our Hoosier humility likely served us well with all the New Yorkers, New Englanders, Hollywood stars and big-city rollers who graced us with their presence, perhaps we can finally shed the proverbial apologies for our lack of oceans, our nonexistent mountains, our flat landscape, our usually frigid winter and our relatively small size (by NFL and NBA standards, at least).
Along with the external kudos, I’m hoping the Super Bowl has given us a helping of chutzpah, a shot of swagger, a bit of bravado.
No more Naptown. No more second-class citizenship. No more “India-no-place.” “Have a super day” has delivered a well-deserved dose of civic pride.•
Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.