GERALD BEPKO Commentary: Chicago World’s Fair is model for Indiana

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Cities seem to progress in stages with moments of decline, growth, exceptional energy, and, at times, a sense of destiny.

For many years, Indianapolis has been a city on the move, a little like Chicago in 1893 when it hosted a World’s Fair.

Chicago sought to shed its frontiertown image and establish itself as a city of global consequence. It beat out New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., for the right to host the fair. In hosting it, Chicago built great additions on the Midway, near what would be the University of Chicago in which the Rockefellers were investing-an investment later called the best they ever made.

Most important, the fair showed the path to the future, from an agrarian to an industrial nation. New technology like electricity was not to be feared, but employed to bring the heartland to the forefront.

Like Chicago in the 1890s, Indianapolis has built great momentum through the 1990s, striving to make its mark as a great city. Our momentum includes the sports movement; arts and cultural developments, a subject of special celebration this year; the renaissance of downtown; the commitment of great companies like Farm Bureau Financial Services, Eli Lilly and Co., OneAmerica Financial Partners Inc., Simon Property Group and WellPoint Inc.; a $1 billion campaign for IUPUI, the capital campus of the state’s great research universities; the invaluable strategic investments of Lilly Endowment Inc., ever more important than the Rockefeller’s philanthropy at the University of Chicago; and the focus on key areas for economic growth, such as advanced manufacturing, logistics and the life sciences which, like electricity, should bring our part of the heartland to the forefront. If we maintain our momentum, and our sense of destiny, we should earn an important place in 21st century America.

Major movements don’t take place without turmoil. So it was in the period leading up to the 1893 Fair. Powerful forces and strong personalities clashed and, at times, the outcomes of the fair were in serious doubt. At the last moment, the forces came together and made the fair a resounding success, attracting more than 17 million people and shaping the history of Illinois.

This is an important moment for Indianapolis and Indiana, as our leaders consider an expanded Indiana Convention Center and a new connected stadium for the Colts, NCAA and others. Much of our momentum derives from our being an NFL city with exciting downtown activities and development. If we lose the Colts, we will suffer an irreparable wound to our spirit and credibility as a state. If we do not commit now to a proposed, largely self-funded expansion of the Convention Center, we will lose hundreds of millions of dollars, lose our competitive position in a tough marketplace, and suffer grievous damage to downtown, which has been fueled by the volume of visitors to the center.

Powerful forces are clashing over these issues, but we should be confident they will come together this spring to produce success, just as folks did in Chicago in 1893. The people involved here are talented, civic-minded leaders, some of whom-like our man Mitch Daniels; Brian Bosma, speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives; and Fred Glass, president of the Capital Improvement Board-I have admired since I met them years ago as students. All these leaders seem to recognize that, as a smaller market, we have to work harder and be more united.

I know our leaders are capable of continuing our momentum. And they will be among the heroes of tomorrow as we continue our state’s progress with an NFL city, a site for NCAA championships, and an Indiana magnet for growing visitor and convention populations.

Bepko is IUPUI chancellor emeritus and Indiana University trustees’ professor at IUPUI and chairman of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. He can be reached by e-mail at

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