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Ousted mayor guides local up-and-comers: Peterson named moderator for prestigious group

October 27, 2008

Voters decided last Election Day that they'd had enough of Bart Peterson, but the former mayor is in demand with academics, a think tank, and now the city's premier leadership network.

Peterson is moderator of the Stanley K. Lacy Executive Leadership Series, which introduces "emerging leaders" to Indianapolis and its problems.

"It's something I never went through as a class member. I've always envied those who did," Peterson said of the series, which accepts just 25 applicants each year. "It's a great opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes view of how the city of Indianapolis works."

As moderator, Peterson gets to put his own touch on the monthly seminars and outings that run through next spring. The current class will spend a day discussing the role of grass-roots organizations in neighborhood revitalization.

"I became a great admirer of people who work in the community development arena," Peterson said.

For the first time, the series will also devote a day to public transportation.

The Lacy Leadership Association has sponsored the executive series since 1977, and usually chooses a business or civic leader as its moderator.

Peterson is the first former mayor to serve as moderator, but not the first who held elected office, Program Director Linda Kirby said.

"SKL is not at all a political thing," she said. "You have community issues or needs, no matter who's on the 25th floor of the City-County Building."

Christie Gillespie, director of agency services for the United Way of Central Indiana, said she was thrilled when she found out she'd been accepted and that Peterson was named moderator.

"I sort of let out a whoop," she said.

Gillespie likes that Peterson was so recently in the thick of major city initiatives.

"He was mayor over some pretty significant things that went on-building the stadium, further consolidation of citycounty government," she said.

She added that Peterson appears to be making the series a priority. He wants to meet with each of the 25 class members individually before the series ends, Gillespie said.

"He's clearly doing a lot of extra things to make sure that he gets to know each one of us," she said.

The young leaders, 20-somethings to 40-somethings, met for their first class day Oct. 16 at the Conrad Indianapolis. The lectures and discussion revolved around ways Indianapolis outperforms its peers.

As a former mayor, Peterson will bring a unique perspective, said David Bodenhamer, executive director of the Polis Center at IUPUI.

"For eight years, he had to deal with problems both large and small," Bodenhamer said.

Those problems included the city sewer system and funding police pensions.

"They weren't particularly sexy things," Bodenhamer said.

After a surprising defeat by Greg Ballard in 2007, Peterson, who'd been president of the National League of Cities, found other ways to promote his vision. He talked to Gene Zink, the retired cofounder of Duke Realty Corp., about starting a real estate investment fund to focus on urban renewal. Zink's Strategic Capital Partners started the fund and made Peterson its managing director.

Living Cities, a New York-based research and advocacy group, tapped Peterson as a fellow. Then Ball State University hired him to teach graduate courses and deliver public lectures on "metropolitan problems."

Moderating the executive leadership series is a volunteer gig.

"It's a hefty, hefty time commitment," Kirby said.

Peterson said he doesn't mind.

"Each of these [commitments] is something that I really care about a lot," he said. "They're all about cities. They're all about urban policy."

Bodenhamer said Peterson, a Democrat, leaves a legacy that's on par with those of past Republican mayors Richard Lugar, Bill Hudnut and Steve Goldsmith. "They've been able to look up, as well as look down, into the various parts of Indianapolis. Each of them had a vision for their city."
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