NOTIONS: How big-ticket amenities deliver long-term ROI

October 3, 2005

Fourteen years ago this month, my new bride and I loaded our belongings onto a moving van in Bloomfield, Conn. We packed our cats, suitcases and a few heirlooms into our cars, and pulled away from our little apartment bound for a place called Indianapolis.

As I followed Pam's blue Accord through New York and New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, I listened to cassette tapes, trying to drown out the mews from the back seat. With David Sanborn and Stan Getz playing backup to my moods, I reflected on the circuitous path that had brought us to this point of our journey.

After my first wife, Laura, and I were divorced, she moved with our sons, Austin and Zach, to her hometown of Fort Wayne. I tried, for two years, to sell our home in a depressed Connecticut market, and struggled, through once-a-month visits, to be a long-distance dad.

For many reasons, most owing to heartache, it didn't work.

By the summer of 1991, after Laura had married Dave and I'd married Pam, it was clear Austin and Zach would be better off with two moms and two dads who lived nearer one another.

So Pam and I set off on scouting missions-visiting cities with newspapers big enough to benefit from Pam's journalistic savvy, and PR/advertising positions plentiful enough to whet my creative appetite.

With each tour came the road test: How quickly could we drive, under Friday night lights, from each potential city to Fort Wayne? That, after all, would become our every-other-weekend reality.

We checked out Columbus and scoured Cincinnati, contemplated Chicago and anticipated Ann Arbor. In each case, the drive was a migraine. And in each case, some other factor went wanting, too.

So on Black Expo weekend, 1991, we flew to Indianapolis, rented a car, and did the road test. It worked.

The rest of that weekend, twin boys in tow, we played in our soon-to-be hometown-seeing sights, navigating neighborhoods and building with blocks at the Children's Museum. (An aside: Boxer Mike Tyson made his way through Indianapolis that weekend, too, raping Desiree Washington at the Canterbury Hotel and committing himself to an extended stay in the Hoosier state, as well. But that's another story.)

Why did Indy win our hearts? Interstate 69 played a part. So did The Indianapolis Star. And the RCA Dome. And Market Square Arena. And Pan Am Plaza. And Union Station. And Meridian-Kessler homes. And concerts, theatrical productions and special events. And the Pacers and the Colts. And the promise of downtown renewal.

In a nutshell: Yes, we could get to Fort Wayne from here. But more than that, Indianapolis felt like the biggest small town in America-big enough to deliver variety and opportunity; small enough to feel manageable, comfortable and welcoming.

A month later, a horse race sealed the deal. Still debating whether to pull the plug on our beloved New England, we visited Pam's sister in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. As it was thoroughbred season, we also went to the track.

One afternoon lineup featured a long shot named "Give Notice." Spying an omen, Pam and I put $2 down, promising one another-with a kiss to seal the deal-that if the pony fared well, we'd move to Indy. The pony won going away.

Two weeks ago, I walked from the office Pam and I built at Pan Am Plaza to two groundbreakings.

On Tuesday, it was the mayor, the governor, the Colts, the NCAA and Black Expo turning shovels for the Indiana Stadium.

On Thursday, it was Clarian Health and the Indiana University School of Medicine starting expansion of the IU Cancer Center at IUPUI.

In the newspaper Pam used to work for, some readers complained about the stadium-saying the money should go not to a plush playground for athletic competition, but to better schools and safer streets for everyday citizens.

In the same newspaper, I've read complaints about new medical facilities-and the desire to cut costs instead of advancing research, education and treatment.

But having chosen this place over others-in part because of its major-league amenities in a manageable-sized city; and having seen the life-extending, stress-reducing, cost-saving benefits when Pam could get top-tier cancer treatment here instead of having to fly to Houston; and having built in downtown Indianapolis-not Ann Arbor, Columbus, Cincinnati, or Chicago-a business that now employs dozens of people who buy cars, houses, educations, groceries, home furnishings, clothing, restaurant meals and more, and who pay thousands of dollars annually in local and state taxes to support better schools and safer streets for everyday citizens-well, I can assure the readers of the newspaper Pam used to work for that stadiums and medical facilities are, indeed, safe bets-maybe even safer than a pony called Give Notice.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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