The concern about the future of our capital city is growing by the hour. Whether you talk to small-business owners, workers who want to come back downtown, hotel owners, police officers or mayors of our fastest-growing suburbs, there is more concern now about Indy’s future than anyone ever recalls.
The comment I continue to hear goes something like this: “It took us decades to build Indy into what it had become before the pandemic, violence and property destruction, but it is amazing just how fast it can all come tumbling down.”
Of course, many cities across America are reeling as the result of workers not returning to their offices, canceled conventions, near-zero business travel and reluctance of suburbanites to venture downtown after the violence. We will eventually get past the pandemic and hopefully not see a repeat of violence and destruction, but Indy’s vulnerabilities have been exposed.
Our downtown is arguably more at risk than those of some other cities due to our heavy reliance on the sports and convention business that drive our downtown economy. As IBJ has well documented through the years, political and civic leaders bet heavily on professional and amateur sports decades ago and the strategy has paid off handsomely to date.
It is important to remember that the bet was a risky one at the time. Former Mayor Bill Hudnut made a huge political gamble by taking the “build it and they will come” strategy in erecting the Hoosier Dome before the Colts had officially committed to Indy. The CEOs of our largest companies (e.g., One America, Lilly) and not-for-profits (e.g., Lilly Endowment), as well as our political leaders at both the state and local level, came together with time, talent and treasure to back the sports strategy.
Today, there is a feeling among our civic leaders that a new strategy and vision is needed that takes into account our changing economy and consumer preferences and builds off of our previous success. Certainly, the sports and convention business will continue to be an important part of Indy’s future, but to date, there is no consensus on the next big idea that will drive our city’s (and thus our state’s) growth.
There is, however, a developing consensus that for Indy (and Indiana) to be successful long term, we must place some bets and take calculated risks like our city forefathers did in the 1970s and 1980s. The feeling is that, in order for Indy to continue to punch above its weight class, we must once again devise bold strategies that set us apart in order to attract talent and investment.
But who will lead with big ideas and bring along all the players that must be at the table in order to effect change? It feels like our civic leaders are waiting on the political leaders to develop the vision and strategy, but none is forthcoming.
In a recent conversation with one of our great, young civic leaders, I asked him what he is observing. His response was telling: “Indy is being out ‘Indy’ed’ by peer cities like Denver, Austin and Columbus. While we are living off our past success, political and civic leaders in these cities are working on new strategies and buying into the same plan, just as Indy did in the ’70s and ’80s.”
This should be yet another wake-up call in a year the alarm has been ringing nonstop. Crisis often can lead to positive change. We have a responsibility to act and act now. Let’s use this moment to work together on the next big idea(s) for Indy and then go out and execute, take some risks, and continue Indy’s and Indiana’s economic renaissance.•
Feltman is CEO of IBJ Media and a shareholder in the company. To comment on this column, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.