Bernanke’s speech at Economic Club a coup for city

The Economic Club of Indiana has booked its share of luminaries over the years to speak at its monthly meetings, but snaring Ben Bernanke may be the club’s biggest coup yet.

The chairman of the Federal Reserve is slated to appear at the club's Oct. 1 meeting in downtown Indianapolis. Officials expect 1,500 to 2,000 people—a crowd more than twice the size that most club speakers attract.

Bernanke’s visit to the Indiana Convention Center, where the club meets for lunch events nine times a year, was scheduled about six months ago, well before the Federal Reserve’s high-profile and controversial announcement last Thursday about new efforts to stimulate the economy.

That announcement should add even more interest in Bernanke’s speech, particularly from the media, and perhaps put Indianapolis in the national spotlight.

“We know from our peer clubs and from conversations with [Bernanke’s] team, there are very few speaking engagements he does,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Economic Club’s board. “This is a big deal to get the Federal Reserve chair here.”

The Federal Reserve said last Thursday that it plans to pump $40 billion into the U.S. economy each month until it sees sustained improvement in the jobs market. But unlike its two previous bond purchases, the Fed said it will only buy mortgage-backed securities.

By purchasing mortgage-linked debt, the Fed hopes borrowing rates will remain low, helping the housing market and spurring more lending and faster economic growth.

The plan prompted one top Republican to charge that the move is a bid to help President Obama ahead of November’s closely contested presidential election.

Bernanke dismissed talk that the Fed was taking sides, saying it acted solely because of the dire state of the U.S. labor market.

Now, Indianapolis, which typically benefits from large sporting events like the Final Four and Super Bowl, could be thrust into the national spotlight by Bernanke’s appearance.

“Any time a person of his stature is speaking in Indianapolis, it helps … position Indianapolis as a first-tier city,” Visit Indy spokesman Chris Gahl said. “Inevitably, the national news will pick up on his speech and turn more eyes and ears, and conventions toward Indianapolis.”

Media attention is expected to be high. Merisotis said he was told by his staff to carve out enough space to accommodate a throng of reporters.

Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, a local not-for-profit that aims to increase the number of Americans attaining college degrees, said the Economic Club extended its first invite to Bernanke about a year ago on a whim.

To the surprise of the Economic Club’s directors, the club cleared the first hurdle and wasn’t immediately snubbed. After several discussions via e-mail, Bernanke agreed.

Indianapolis businessman Al Hubbard, who worked with Bernanke during Hubbard’s time as chief economic adviser to former President George W. Bush, might have helped their cause, Merisotis surmised.

The timing before the election and the Midwest location may have been a factor as well, he said.

A spokesman for the Federal Reserve said it doesn’t divulge how speaking engagements are determined.

“We were told he gets thousands of invitations to speak,” Merisotis said. “This will certainly be the biggest audience in modern memory.”

By comparison, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels a few years ago attracted about 1,000 people, Merisotis said.

Because he’s a federal official, Bernanke cannot command a speaking fee. The Economic Club in rare instances has paid $5,000 to $10,000 to land a guest.

Margaret Spellings, former U.S. secretary of education and president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Forum for Policy Innovation, kicked off the Economic Club’s season last Friday. The season runs through May and a lineup of speakers can be found here.

A small number of $30 tickets remains for Bernanke’s appearance, Merisotis said, and can be purchased online.

The Economic Club was formed in 1974 by a trio including retired Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm. Past guests have included George H.W. Bush, Charlton Heston, H. Ross Perot, John Stossel, Steve Forbes, Dick Cheney and F.W. de Klerk.

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