Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett is a cautious leader—a reality that frustrates many in the business community who wish he more clearly articulated a grand vision for the city and boldly pursued it.
But this isn’t going to be an editorial that covers that often-trod ground. Quite the contrary. It is to offer our wholehearted praise for the mayor’s role in engineering a deal to build two Hilton-affiliated hotels on Pan Am Plaza at a time the hospitality industry is in tatters due to COVID-19.
Given the one-two punch downtown has endured—first the pandemic and then a weekend of shocking violence fueled by anger over issues of Black inequality—it would not have been surprising to see Hogsett take a batten-down-the-hatches approach, focusing on righting the ship, rather than positioning downtown to fully benefit when the elusive recovery finally arrives.
But as the mayor made clear in a meeting with IBJ’s editorial board this month, it’s not one or the other; it’s both.
“We are thinking big and we are thinking long term, rather than to recede and hide,” he said. “It’s easier said right now than done, but I want to remain aggressive in terms of the future.”
The quote reflects the go-for-it mentality among generations of city leaders that helped fuel downtown’s renaissance, first with construction of the RCA Dome in the 1980s in the hopes of landing an NFL team, followed in the early 1990s by completion of Circle Centre mall.
The city’s convention industry has grown into the juggernaut it is with similar leaps of faith, including the addition of the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown in 2001 and the JW Marriott in 2011. Both proved to be monumental successes that helped the city retain conventions and attract new ones.
The city and developer Kite Realty Group Trust on July 28 announced they had reached a deal on the next wave of growth, which includes construction of a $125 million addition to the Indiana Convention Center and the two privately funded hotels with a total of 1,400 rooms.
The project is being delayed up to two years—to the second half of 2022—which is understandable, given the reality that existing downtown hotels need time to get back on their feet after COVID-19 brought occupancy close to zero.
But we’re pleased that the project has lost none of its grandeur since its original unveiling in 2018. The convention center expansion includes construction of the 10th-largest ballroom in the country, and the first hotel, a ritzy Signia Hilton, would be the tallest hotel in the state.
We’re also pleased that the financial underpinnings of the deal have not changed—the two hotels are not slated to receive a public subsidy, though they will benefit from the right to use meeting space in the convention center expansion. It would not have been surprising for Kite to have extracted more help, given the hard times facing the hotel industry and the challenges in Kite’s core business of retail real estate.
The project still faces hurdles—including that Kite must line up financing. But we’re pleased that such a splashy project with so much potential upside is off the drawing board and on its way toward becoming reality.
And for that, the mayor deserves a pat on the back.•
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