Melvin Simon was a businessman and philanthropist of national prominence, but the vast real estate empire he helped build
is not his legacy here. Simon didn’t merely develop real estate and support charitable causes in Indianapolis; he played
a pivotal role in making sure it remained a city in the truest sense of the word.
Simon’s death Sept. 16 at the age of 82 leaves Indianapolis with half of the duo that seemed to be in on almost every important decision made here in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. The other half is his younger brother, Herb. Together, they were simply “the Simons” or “Mel and Herb” to thousands of locals who didn’t know them but saw them as among the city’s most generous patrons.
Beyond the varied and important causes that have been on the receiving end of millions of dollars of Simon family money, Mel Simon twice consented to help rescue the city from dire predicaments. The ongoing—and in one case money-losing—commitments that resulted were game changers for a landlocked city that could have slipped into obscurity in the waning years of the 20th century.
In the 1970s, Melvin Simon & Associates, as the development company was called then, had amassed land in Hamilton County for the purpose of building a giant, enclosed shopping mall. The city of Indianapolis, meanwhile, was trying to resurrect a downtown decimated by the flight to the suburbs that started after World War II. The Simons agreed to scrub the Hamilton County plans and focus instead on building an urban mall that would bring shoppers back downtown.
They then spent the better part of two decades in discussions with property owners, preservationists, retailers, financiers, elected officials and corporate partners leading up to the opening of Circle Centre in September 1995.
Along the way, they bought the Indiana Pacers in 1983, preventing the NBA team’s demise or its move to another city, a black eye that the city’s sports strategy might never have overcome. The team loses money, but its value to the city—largely because of all the good that has happened on the sports front since the rescue—is priceless.
Circle Centre and the Pacers were crucial to the downtown success story, and a center city that could have become a liability instead became an economic engine for all of central Indiana. Many people played a role, but Mel Simon’s civic-minded decisions made it all possible.
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