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Indianapolis' Downtown Resurgence : 12-Year Effort at Revitalization Is Huge Success for Rust Belt City

November 23, 1986|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Question: "What do you do for excitement in this town?"

Answer: "You go down to the nearest Roselyn Bakery and smell hot bread."

Add further insults ("Indian-No-Place" and "Naptown"), and you can share the delight--forgive, even, a certain smugness--on the part of the citizenry in this crossroads city for the almost breath-taking, tangible success of a revitalization program the likes of which most other older cities are lucky to get to the blueprint stage.

"I really can't think of anything comparable any place," said Sid Weedman, currently executive director of the White River State Park Commission and--during the late 1960s and early '70s--executive director of the Commission for Downtown which took the first, timid steps toward the city's rebirth. "Not, at least, in terms of its rapidity and the number of projects accomplished."

Major Downtown Projects

Since 1974, more than $1,682,000,000 in downtown construction projects has been either committed or completed--a dazzling network of carefully planned downtown construction and renovations of office space, hotels, stores and restaurants.

"I think that a number of cities in the Rust Belt, like Indianapolis, are experiencing a resurgence of interest in downtown," Mayor William H. Hudnut III, now in his third term, said in an interview, "and our dream all the way along has been to keep our city from becoming a doughnut--with all of the development on the outside and all the deterioration and decay on the inside.

"We've had to have a concerted policy of reinforcing the central core. You can't be a suburb of nothing."

It was a city that didn't hesitate to plow $70 million into a downtown stadium, the Hoosier Dome, although it didn't have a professional football team lined up to play in it, and another $21 million into a sophisticated natatorium, or swimming complex, accommodating 4,700 spectators, although the nearest swimming team was Indiana University's, located 60 miles away.

Occupancy Up 290%

From a handful of scattered, down-at-the-heels hotels with a few hundred rooms between them, new and sleek hostelries--a who's who of Hiltons, Hyatts, Embassy Suites, Radissons, Sheratons and Holiday Inns--have sprung up, and by next year, the city will have no fewer than 14,000 rooms available. In just two short years, room-night hotel occupancy has skyrocketed almost 290%--from 79,000 in 1984 to an estimated 230,000 this year.

Begin with one prestige restaurant just off Monument Circle, Indianapolis's hub, and one durable steak house on the near-south side of downtown, and then add no fewer than 60 new downtown restaurants and pubs opening in just the last six years.

Perhaps the biggest gamble of all: take the city's boarded-up, Romanesque, 1880-vintage Union Station--the launch pad for thousands of war-bound Hoosiers in both World Wars I and II--and not 1869507705blighted and shadowy warehouse/wholesale area a few blocks south of the city's center.

Compound the gamble by attaching the whole renovation to a 275-room Holiday Inn built in the existing train shed and featuring 26 suites made out of restored train sleeper cars. Pack the restored Union Station with 60 off-the-wall shops and an international food court, including more than 30 eateries, bars and nightclubs.

Union Station Attraction

And then sit back, as real estate developers Robert and Sandra Borns did, and see if it works. It was an awesome risk for the unusual partnership between the Borns and the city. An entire generation of Indianapolis natives had grown up trained to shun that forbidding corner of their city.

Opening last April, Union Station has been drawing visitors at the rate of a million a month--80% of them from out of town--to a non-stop barrage of special events ranging from a laser light show to folk and rock festivals to a childrens' pre-Halloween "Haunted Train" special. Horse-drawn carriages clop through the now-teeming, restaurant-lined streets on the city's south side.

What happened in this once-sleepy city--whose only real claim to fame was the annual Indianapolis 500 Mile Race--that made the whole thing fall into place?

City after city has laid and launched similarly ambitious plans, only to end up with little to show for them except, perhaps, a dusty and little-used pedestrian mall.

Avoided Others' Mistakes

"I don't know," Margo Lyon, executive director of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, muses. "I think maybe we had an advantage in being so far behind the times. We had an opportunity to look at other cities, see their failures and avoid them."

"I think, accidentally, the timing was right, too," Weedman, the one-time executive director of the Commission for Downtown, added. "A few things began happening in the late '60s and early '70s that were really a little ahead of their time as far as establishing any momentum is concerned.

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