Up to the challenge: Stadium project leader has been here before

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John Klipsch didn’t necessarily set out to take control of one of the largest public-works projects in Indianapolis history, but he prepared for it nonetheless.

“My degree is in counseling,” he said with a wry smile. “This is how my career has evolved over the years.”

So here he is, two months before work is scheduled to begin on a $900 million stadium construction and convention center expansion project, relying on his professional experience and personal dedication to get the job done.

As executive director of the brand-new Indiana Stadium and Convention Building Authority-the seven-member board still has one vacancy-Klipsch is jumping into the driver’s seat well into the race.

Even so, observers are confident he’ll keep the project intact and on track until it crosses the finish line.

“I don’t know anybody else who could walk in and hit the ground running like he can,” said Indiana Sports Corp. President Susan Williams, who has worked with him on similar projects. “With John involved, you can be comfortable it will get done on time and on budget. He’s a demon on the budget.”

Williams, a Democrat who served 14 years on the City-Coun- ty Council, got to know Klipsch in the 1990s when he was helping with two other major municipal projects-Circle Centre and Conseco Fieldhouse.

She was so impressed that she hired him to oversee exhibit design, fabrication and installation at the new Indiana State Museum, a construction project she managed during her stint as executive director of the State Office Building Commission.

That experience should serve Klipsch well in his next endeavor, Williams said.

“There were so many players, so many special interests, we needed somebody like him who could bring everybody together and get them to get along and stay focused,” she said.

The same skills will likely apply to the new project.

“The big challenge is there are so many bosses, so many people who have a huge stake in this,” Williams added. “It will be a big challenge to pull it all together, but John can do it.”

‘Action junkie’

The pressure is on, to be sure.

State legislators gave the project a green light in late April, authorizing local governments to pass hospitality tax increases to pay for construction. At the same time, they took control away from the city’s Capital Improvement Board, which had been quietly working on it for years.

Appointed to lead the ISCBA May 17, Klipsch threw himself into his new job even before the details of his contract had been ironed out. Taking a break from meetings to talk to a reporter over a cup of coffee, he confessed to 60- and 70-hour weeks with nary a grimace.

“I’m an action junkie,” he said, offering a favorite explanation for his near-missionary zeal. “I like action. I think most people involved in these projects do. They all rise to the challenge, and I like to think I can, too.”

Klipsch certainly has come a long way since the mid-’70s, when he taught construction techniques to at-risk youth in Kentucky. Fresh out of college at the time, he and his charges rehabbed old houses until his wife, Connie, got a job with the U.S. Department of Labor in Savannah, Ga.

He moved there with her and signed on with the city’s metropolitan development agency, where he directed residential renovation projects.

The high school sweethearts moved home to Evansville in 1980, then to Indianapolis five years later.

Klipsch was working for the U.S. Corps of Engineers at Fort Benjamin Harrison when he was lured away in 1986 for a job in the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development.

And that’s where he made a name for himself. As special-projects manager, Klipsch managed budgets, juggled real estate transactions, and handled design and construction for Circle Centre mall, the Indianapolis Artsgarden, the Lower Canal Improvements Project and the Pan Am Games fire station.

He was there when the first building was demolished to make way for Circle Centre and when the project bogged down amid economic uncertainty. And he survived the turmoil to be there when it opened in 1995.

Almost immediately, he jumped into the Conseco Fieldhouse project, this time as director of special projects for the Indianapolis Public Improvement Bond Bank. When that wrapped up, he left to start his own consulting agency, tackling the Indiana State Museum right out of the gate.

“I have matured with each project, learned how to step up to the next level,” said Klipsch, a distant cousin of the Indianapolis speaker-making family.

Relentless focus

The step up to the next level is a big one, but Klipsch is confident he’ll get a boost.

“One of the reasons these projects have been successful is that we have had good leaders and a dedicated design and construction industry,” he said. “Everyone knows how to work hard, roll up their sleeves and get it done.”

Klipsch expects no less from the stadium/convention center project.

“The city has done a good job of getting everything ready. There are a lot of highly qualified, smart people working on it,” he said. “It is an honor to have been chosen for this. I feel lucky to be part of it.”

Project proponents feel lucky, too.

“He’s a great choice,” enthused CIB Vice President Patrick J. Early, who led the board and worked with Klipsch during the Fieldhouse construction. “John did a really good job keeping us apprised of what was going on, but there is no question when he’s in there running something it’s his project. He takes ownership of it, runs a tight ship. That’s how he’s able to manage so many moving pieces at same time.”

“His talent is in his focus,” concurred former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who worked with Klipsch on Conseco and Circle Centre. “John is relentless in his drive to finish a project on time and on budget.”

And that’s no easy task when the assignment in question involves nearly $1 billion, two major public facilities and six years of construction.

“In these projects, 20 issues arise each day that are tradeoffs between quality, timeliness and price,” Goldsmith said. “There will always be complications. The more moving parts there are, the more difficult it is.”

Even so, Klipsch hopes to be able to avoid one potential complication-the political battles that threatened to scuttle the project before it even began.

“This is a high-profile, complicated project with a large budget and a tight time frame,” he said. “I can’t say politics won’t enter in, but they’re certainly not a priority. The best politics in this case would be to get it done well, on time and within budget. … It’s an exhilarating challenge.”

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