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SPORTS: An open letter to Greg, er Hizzoner, Mayor Ballard:

December 31, 2007

Well, the day is here when you finally get the keys to the offices on the 25th floor of the City-County Building. Congratulations. I knew you had the election in the bag all the way.

Yeah, right.

Anyway, I've noticed you have formed a number of transition teams to bring you up to speed on the various forms and functions of citycounty government. Folks way smarter than I have provided reams of information that will provide you a road map for the next four years.

I know you're an Indy guy, but you did spend a considerable time away in noble service to your country. That's why I thought I'd take this space to provide you a little primer on this thing here we sometimes refer to as the "sports initiative."

It's worked amazingly well, mainly because the mayors, the politicians and the decision-makers, dating back to Richard Lugar, agreed that bipartisan was the way to go if the sports initiative was ever going to gain traction.

It's worked because it's never been about who got the credit, only about getting the job done.

As you take office, I worry if that will continue to be the case, and that's not a reflection on you as much as it is a changing culture in which there seem to be more turf wars than ever before. Used to be, the only turf that mattered here was the one defined by four county-line roads.

That's how we shed our "cornfield with lights" image, with sports leading the way. It was a strategy that worked so well that other cities all over the country were asking for the Indianapolis blueprint. Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.

Sure, there have been critics along the way, always complaining about "misplaced priorities" and the investment in sports. Fact is, however, Indianapolis has created a thriving industry that delivers real dollars into the hands of its citizens, creates significant tax revenue for the benefit of local and state government and, just as important, has reshaped and re-defined our national and international stature.

That we also have created memories and inspiration-the National Sports Festival and the Pan Am Games, Olympics-related events, all those Final Fours and NCAA regionals, Pacers and Colts and, of course, the 800-pound Godzilla that is the goings-on at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway-is the bonus that comes with it.

As I said, it began when Dick Lugar decided that a place called Market Square Arena could be that first step in downtown revitalization. It continued with Mayors Hudnut, Goldsmith and the man you defeated, Bart Peterson.

And before I go on, let me say something about Mayor Bart. One is that we all can learn something from Peterson about how to handle defeat with grace and dignity, whether in sports or life in general. Two is that he embraced the sports initiative and realized its current value and limitless potential. I can tell you from my days at the Indiana Sports Corp. that whenever we needed Mayor Bart's support, we had it. Shoot, he even allowed his wife, Amy, to climb into a fire department cherry-picker to unveil a street sign and promote the Big Ten basketball tournament.

Anyway, Mayor Ballard, you are the beneficiary of the community asset that the sports initiative is, and how it has been shaped by mayors and other visionaries over the last 30 years. This is not something you or anyone else needs to apologize for, or to treat as anything less than a priority among the city's many priorities.

And what an incredible time to preside over the city. You get to preside over the opening of multi-purpose Lucas Oil Stadium in August. The Big Ten men's and women's tournaments are here over the next five years and oh, by the way, it was a bipartisan effort that enabled Indy to wrest that gem out of Chicago. You will preside over two Final Fours, the men's in 2010 and the women's in 2011. You will be there as mayor as the Speedway pulls out all the stops in celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Ideally you will be there when Indy claims the 2012 Super Bowl and perhaps lands the relocation of another significant sports-governing body to Indianapolis. Rest assured, they aren't likely to happen without the full support and cooperation of you and your staff.

You and your team face many challenges. Sustaining the success of the sports initiative doesn't have to be one of them.

Best wishes for a happy new year. Bill



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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