Virtual Voices

Indy's healthy civic DNA

Cities

Indianapolis has no oceanfront. Nor is it on the Great Lakes like Chicago, Detroit, or Cleveland. The Super Bowl city has no mountains in the distance like Denver.

How then did Indianapolis get the Super Bowl?

Urban analyst Fred Siegel, who is based in New York City, thinks the city has an unusual dose of healthy civic DNA that helps explain its Super Bowl status.

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Siegel is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, teaches at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and wrote a key biography of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. An expert in the rise and fall of cities, he seems more optimistic about Indianapolis than many who live in the land-locked state capital of Indiana.

He said Indianapolis has unusually strong leaders and residents who think beyond themselves, and that civic mind-set should be a treasured asset, not taken for granted.

One example of evidence of civic engagement is last year's mayoral election and the competitive nature of the city's municipal politics. "It's unusual that you even had a competitive mayor's race," Siegel said. "In most cities traditional two-party politics has ended. Instead you have one-party rule."

He pointed out that a one-party monopoly usually leads to complacency and deterioration. "Voter participation keeps dropping in most cities," Siegel noted. "With only one party, there's no avenue for an alternative agenda."

He also pointed to a string of strong mayors. Richard Lugar, now a U.S. senator, expanded the city limits to the county borders. Bill Hudnut promoted amateur sports and attracted the NFL's Colts. Steve Goldsmith trimmed the size and scope of government, discerning the threat of high tax rates to an older city. Bart Peterson oversaw a new football stadium, a new airport, and a remarkable neighborhood turnaround in Fall Creek Place, a gentrified area that fell into serious disrepair in the 1980s. Current Mayor Greg Ballard launched a massive street repair initiative with the sale of the city-owned water company.

"You've had a series of strong mayors, remarkably competent guys," Siegel said. "That is very unusual to have that level of competence for so many years."

Leonard Hoopes, the new director of the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, saw the community's civic engagement from another angle when ICVA's chairman, developer Michael Browning, interviewed him a year ago.

"He doesn't own or run a sports team. He doesn't have a direct stake in the hospitality industry," Hoopes noted. "So many leaders I have met here, Jim Morris [CEO of the NBA's Indiana Pacers], or Jerry Semler [chairman emeritus of American United Mutual Insurance Holding Company], or Michael Browning-they put the Indianapolis destination ahead of their own individual organization."

Call it community spirit or civic DNA; it helps make up for the missing mountains and oceans.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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