The violence that ended lives, damaged businesses and shattered windows downtown last weekend also shattered an already fragile perception of downtown as a safe place and clouded its future.
As the glass is replaced and the graffiti washed away, downtown will recover, at least cosmetically, from its weekend as a war zone. But those repairs shouldn’t lull us into the false sense that we’ve returned to a pre-pandemic, pre-riot downtown. They won’t fix the concerns about safety. And they won’t guarantee downtown’s future as a business hub if, after the pandemic, companies shrink their offices and allow employees to do more work from home.
The stakes are high—even if you live in Carmel, or Terre Haute or South Bend. The Indy region is only as strong as its core. And the entire state depends on a strong Indianapolis, which accounts for 38% of Indiana’s gross domestic product.
That means not only an Indianapolis that’s safe but also one where the economic spoils are shared broadly—which, as last weekend’s protests underscored, is not the case today. As IBJ documented in its One City, Worlds Apart series in 2018 and 2019, one in five city residents lives in poverty. In some areas, that proportion is far higher.
The pandemic throws up additional obstacles for families struggling to get by, as well as for our downtown and others across the country. But those challenges can be turned into opportunities if we muster the resolve of those who carved this city out of wilderness 200 years ago and reinvented it, against long odds, over the last 50.
Do we have the leadership we need to preserve and build upon those gains? After peaceful local protests over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police turned destructive the night of May 29, the mayor and governor were caught flat-footed the following night. The resulting mayhem left two people dead and a path of destruction across downtown.
Calling in the National Guard to patrol state properties and imposing countywide curfews helped keep the peace in the nights that followed, but those quick fixes aren’t sustainable. Businesses and the public need reason to be confident the city can respond quickly and effectively to protect people and property wherever violent, destructive activity breaks out.
Unfortunately, that’s the low-hanging fruit. Aggressive panhandlers and disruptive youth had become chronic threats to the center city’s economic vitality long before the recent crisis. Downtown Indy Inc., the not-for-profit that promotes downtown, is about to finish a report offering city leaders strategies to solve those and other problems. The mayor and City-County Council will fail us if they don’t turn that report into action.
The business community has a huge role to play. The last time the city reinvented itself, turning a blighted downtown into a magnet for housing, retail, conventions and high-profile sporting events, the momentum came from business leaders who worked hand-in-hand with city government to transform the city.
Unfortunately, that transformation left some behind. Inclusive growth strategies promoted by the Indy Chamber, Central Indiana Community Foundation and other groups are just as important as the more immediate need to protect our downtown. But they’ll take time.
In the meantime, we’ve got a downtown in distress. Decades of investment seem imperiled, but this is no time to despair—it’s time to step up, be bold and behave like our economy is at stake, for it very well might be.•
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