BENNER: Time will prove the wisdom of building stadium

August 17, 2009

So another anniversary passes in Indy.

A year ago, we opened Lucas Oil Stadium.

We have been arguing about it ever since.

And only as recently as Aug. 10, when the City-County Council passed the additional 1-percent innkeepers’ tax that also will expand the downtown professional sports district, could we at least assure the monstrous edifice on South Street would stay open.

As if we really had any other choice.

To some, including me, the stadium represents a necessary next step in the evolution of our city, a building we had to have in order to sustain the momentum of three decades of downtown development.

It is a structure not so much for the now but for the future. Major cities compete vigorously, and “amenities” such as stadia and the like are viewed as bargaining chips in the attraction and retention of business, events, residents and visitors.

Critics see the stadium as the all-time monument to misplaced priorities, pure and simple. It was constructed out of ego, the latest overreaction to our long-standing civic inferiority complex. It was then pushed into reality by the “downtown elites” and handed over to a wealthy sports-team owner who uses this publicly funded monstrosity for the benefit of his very private enterprise.

And quite honestly, there is merit in what both opponents and proponents say.

Of course, everything changed in the stadium’s first year. Barely a month after it opened, the economy tanked. Then there was the issue of the one-sided lease with Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, negotiated at a time in which the dynamics were entirely different.

And finally, of course, there have been all the problems with the Capital Improvement Board, many of them inherited by new members of the board trying only to deal with the realities they’d been handed and looking for solutions that might get them out of the mess.

The bag they were handed by the Indiana General Assembly via the City-County Council offers only a temporary fix. Three years from now, if not sooner, I’m afraid everyone will be back at the table.

Bottom line is, folks, we built it. Now we—and that includes the state of Indiana—have to figure out a way to pay for its upkeep. The increase in the innkeepers’ tax buys time, I hope enough for the economy to recover and for more and more events to be booked into the stadium.

I am convinced that, over the long haul, the stadium will be an enormous statewide asset, a significant part of the economic engine that brings benefit to distant Hoosier communities.

Absolutely, its primary function is to serve as home to the Colts, and they serve as the primary benefactor of the stadium, just as do dozens of other professional franchises in dozens of other cities across the country. We are not alone in our zeal to have major-league professional sports as part of our landscape.

Misplaced priorities? Perhaps. But the Colts and Pacers could leave tomorrow, we could implode the stadium and Conseco Fieldhouse, and guess what … Indianapolis would still have virtually all the problems that face virtually any large or midsize city in the country.

In its first year, we have seen the multiple capabilities of Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s a terrific venue (recently named best new sports venue by the Sports Business Journal) that will bring generations of Hoosiers and visitors together for everything from trade shows to conventions to concerts to music competitions like the Drum Corps International World Championships that just passed through. Even beyond the major events, such as the Super Bowl and Final Fours, the value of the stadium cannot be measured only in today’s terms. It has to be evaluated in the context of the years to come in much the same way we witnessed the evolution of the Hoosier/RCA Dome.

This past year has been anything but the best in which to open a stadium. Cockeyed optimist that I am, I believe brighter days are ahead for it.

Opening that retractable roof whenever possible would be a good start.•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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