Thomas Cook: Indy leadership continues to move boldly

Let’s start by dispensing with the Midwestern humility: Indianapolis is the best “big game” city in the world, and it isn’t even close. From the moment the Pan American Games flame was lit in 1987, we have created one of the most successful sports dynasties in modern times. 

But as we watch our streets and arenas fill up, driving the vanguard of American cities eager to cast off the yoke of a waning pandemic, I can’t help but reflect on the perennial parlor game that often spills onto editorial pages: questioning the “boldness” of whomever happens to possess the reins of Indianapolis government.

I don’t need to spin the yarn for you because it’s woven into our civic fabric. Following more than two decades of visionary leadership from Mayors Lugar and Hudnut, every successive mayor has been plagued by criticism that they lack the requisite chutzpah to keep things going.

We can’t completely blame the opinion-makers for relying on tired tropes in filling their monthly quota. That’s because by enjoying an unbroken winning streak of mayoral leadership, Indianapolis has made boldness, well…boring.

Looking for daring? No other fire department in the state has to maintain equipment for sports arenas or high-rise buildings. No other police department in the state has to budget for the inevitable overtime that comes when we shut down our central business district to host events on the global stage. 

Not courageous enough for you? Well recall that Indianapolis has spent decades diverting hard-earned property tax dollars into building one of the largest networks of connected hotels in the country, a big bet that has paid off by allowing visitors to enjoy the mercurial Hoosier spring in climate-controlled comfort. 

And you want to talk about audacious? Over the last decade – just like this week – we’ve rolled out the red carpet as no one else can, all while making tough choices to keep local government in the black after the city budget was ravaged by constitutional property tax caps.

The end result has been an unprecedented month-long advertisement for our city and state, and an economic impact that some experts believe could push past $200 million by the time we hit the second verse of “One Shining Moment.” 

If that sounds like a great deal, that’s because it is – but local leaders are braver than you might think. That’s because much of that impact will be in the form of state sales taxes, flowing out of the Mile Square to fund schools and services across ninety-one other counties.

It’s a visceral reminder that in any given year, Marion County produces far more in taxes than it receives back from the state. But time and time again, Indianapolis mayoral leadership has sailed past the siren’s song of provincialism and continued efforts to maintain and grow this economic engine on behalf of the Hoosier State. 

And even while tackling the greatest public health crisis the city has seen in a century, our current crop of local leaders have continued to make moves that have allowed this March Madness to succeed while setting us up for future success.

Mayor Joe Hogsett and the City-County Council dedicated millions in local tax dollars toward getting downtown ready for March Madness, rehabbing Georgia Street and Monument Circle. And last year, the Hogsett administration refused to let a global pandemic slow the city’s progress, pumping $180 million into a critical Indiana Convention Center expansion and an ambitious refresh of the Fieldhouse.

The fruits of those labors have been on display over the next few weeks, and should put the rest of the country on upset alert. As Visit Indy and the CIB continue to poach events from across the country, we now have a roadmap for how Indianapolis (and Indiana) can emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever. 

And unlike the journey to the Final Four that is about to conclude, our road to recovery is just getting started. With projects like Elanco’s new downtown corporate headquarters breaking ground and existing partners like Infosys and 16 Tech continuing to grow, there will be even more transformative development in Indianapolis over the next few years.

Unprecedented? No. Unexpected? Absolutely not.

It’s the new normal here in Indianapolis. It’s the banality of boldness. And as the nets come down, we should be thankful that an uninterrupted line of great leaders from Lugar to Hogsett have made us numb to the magic we’ve witnessed over the last month.

Cook is the former chief deputy mayor under Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and a partner at the law firm of Bose McKinney & Evans.

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