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SPORTS: Time to deflate that which inflated city's image

September 22, 2008

Last week's column looked ahead to the limitless possibilities of Lucas Oil Stadium.

This week's topic is a last look back at the Hoosier/RCA Dome because, this Wednesday, the Dome will be deflated and it will pass forever from our skyline. But not from our memories.

Imagine our city without it.

There would be no Indianapolis Colts. There likely would be no forthcoming Super Bowl, no Final Fours and no NCAA headquarters. There likely would have been no Pan American Games, and dozens of other sporting events that Indianapolis used to redefine itself as an amateur sports capital.

There might not be a Circle Centre, or an Indiana Convention Center, at least in the scope of the one we have now. There might not be all those hotels and skywalks connected to the Convention Center.

Imagine. We could still be India-no-place, the cornfield with lights. More dead than alive.

Imagine if we had, as some wanted, built a stadium in the Lafayette Square area, or somewhere around I-465. Imagine how that might have retarded downtown development. Imagine Indianapolis without the unmatched asset that the combined stadium/Convention Center complex provided. Imagine if a stadium had been built on the west bank of the White River, as was proposed. There might be no Indianapolis Zoo downtown, or even White River State Park.

Critics saw this domed stadium as a monument to misplaced priorities-how many times have we heard that since? It was a white elephant with a Teflon hide.

I know I've been down this road before. But it's important to issue one last reminder of the Dome's significance before it becomes yesterday's photographs.

Given the success of Market Square Arena as a catalyst for downtown redevelopment, city leaders began raising the idea of a stadium to attract an NFL franchise in the late '70s. The city owned land on the west bank of White River, where the zoo is now. But there also was an impetus to expand the Convention Center, which, built in 1972, was seeing demand exceed capacity.

Mayor Bill Hudnut put the problem on deputy mayor Dave Frick's desk and basically said: Figure it out. Frick quickly came to the conclusion that the "numbers didn't work" for a football-only stadium.

In the meantime, Jim Morris, Mayor Richard Lugar's former top aide and then with Lilly Endowment, had the light go on during a visit to the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

Perhaps a domed stadium like the Carrier Dome-constructed on a tight on-campus space-could serve dual purposes, providing both a place for football while also serving as an expansion to the Convention Center capable of hosting meetings, conventions and trade shows.

Shortly thereafter, on a Sunday afternoon, Morris and the late Jim Browning literally stepped off the dimensions of the Carrier Dome in the space between the railroad tracks and the existing Convention Center.

Only one thing wrong. "Jim's stride wasn't exactly 36 inches," Frick recalls now with a chuckle.

And when the plans were put to paper, the dome didn't fit-it required more footage from the railroad right of way. Once that was obtained, the project was good to go.

Well, sort of.

"There was a lot of public opposition," Frick said. "Hudnut risked his political future. Remember, times were very tight in the early '80s. There was hyper-inflation and the city budgets were being stretched. Hudnut charged me with finding and building a consensus."

Which Frick did, gaining the support of key legislators, the Chamber of Commerce, and business and neighborhood groups. Eventually, the deal and the Dome got done.

"Our first event was the 500 Festival Mayors Breakfast in May of 1984," Frick said. "More than 5,000 people attended, including many of our newly arrived Indianapolis Colts. It was an incredible moment, but none of us realized then all that the Dome would spin off for the city. It was a course-changing moment that changed the public and national perception of Indianapolis."

Frick-now chairman of the Indiana Stadium and Building Authority-along with Morris, Hudnut and others, will stand front and center Wednesday during ceremonies marking the Dome's deflation. For them, it's sure to be a bittersweet moment.

"I can vividly remember the day they broke ground for Lucas Oil Stadium," said Frick. "My seat looked toward the RCA Dome and a tear came to my eye because I knew we were sealing the Dome's fate."

Imagine Indy without it. Now, we can.



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. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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