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Sports Spurs Indianapolis Growth - 2001-07-28

Indianapolis, Indiana - Nap Town - A cornfield with lights - "India no place." Those were some of the unflattering nicknames for Indiana's sleepy capital city as recently as 20 years ago. But no longer. Indianapolis is now the nation's twelfth-largest city, and growing fast. One word best explains the change. The word is "sports."

Optimistic planners figured the city that's called "Indy" would grow by 13,000 people in the 1990s. Instead its population jumped by 63,000. That's an eight percent rise at a time when many other Midwest cities lost people. The population of St. Louis, Missouri, for instance, dropped 12 percent.

Why is Indianapolis, a city in the middle of an agricultural state, prospering?

A big part of the answer can be traced to the Indiana Sports Corporation, which was founded in 1979. It was the first of what are now more than four hundred organizations that compete to lure sports teams and tournaments to cities around the country. Indianapolis alone budgets $2 million a year for this effort.

Sports authority vice president Bill Benner says the city's fortunes first spiked upward when Indianapolis hosted the National Sports Festival in 1982.

"It was like, 'Wow, Indianapolis can do this.' Nobody kind of believed it," he said. "And then that was followed by the Pan American Games in 1987. Ten years before then, if you had pitched the idea of Indianapolis hosting this hemispheric gathering for nine thousand athletes, everybody would have gone, 'There's just no way.' It not only came, but it happened with great success."

Indianapolis already boasted the world's most famous open-wheel automobile race, the Indianapolis 500, which is held each May. And in a state that loves basketball, Indy went wild over boys' and girls' high school tournaments each spring. But that was about it for excitement.

Now Indianapolis is the unquestioned amateur sports capital of the United States. The associations that oversee the nation's college and high-school sports are based in Indy. And the organizations that run U.S. amateur track and field, synchronized swimming, rowing, diving, and gymnastics maintain their headquarters and hold world-class events in Indianapolis.

The direct benefit of amateur sports to the city's economy has been estimated at $20 billion over the past twenty years.

Bill Benner calls sports a "clean" industry that brings thousands of new jobs to town. He says sports gave drab Indianapolis a vibrant new image. Corporations like the big Eli Lilly drug company have supported amateur sports with millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours.

"No one person made all this happen," says Mr. Benner. "It wasn't one mayor. It wasn't just Lilly, which provided a lot of the seed money. The focus was never on who gets the job done but just how the job gets done." But it isn't just the sports phenomenon that explains Indianapolis's boom.

Its biggest employers health care and pharmaceutical companies are growth industries. The city's Latino population quadrupled in the 1990s as employers recruited immigrants to fill jobs. The Asian community grew by 67 percent. Belatedly, says Andy Swenson, a city planner, cultural diversity has arrived in Indianapolis.

"I think word of mouth spreads that Indianapolis has low unemployment," he says. "Over time people say, 'Bring your friends, bring your neighbors. Let's get goin' and make some money. They write letters home, and they get people to come. It's the way immigration has always happened in the United States."

An enormous shopping mall opened downtown in 1995. Indy's sports arena, football and baseball stadiums, zoo, performance hall, new state museum, and the world's largest children's museum are within walking distance of the convention center, which is currently adding almost a hectare of meeting space.

Seven hotels, including a 650-room Marriott that opened this year, connect directly to the convention center. Dave Sibley is the Marriott's general manager.

"When they first asked me to come here to Indianapolis, I said, 'No, thank you,'" said Dave Sibley, Marriott's general manager. "My wife went to Indiana University, and she said, 'Please, just go out and look at it.' And I came out by myself, walked around, fell in love with it. You have a small-town feel, but it's big enough that you know you're in a city with what a city would offer."

Mayor Bart Peterson says Indianapolis has made amazing progress, but there's lots left to be done.

"I think we have a far better downtown, a far more lively and interesting downtown, than several cities that are larger than Indianapolis," he says. "We'll continue to work on that, but a great city has great neighborhoods as well. Many of them have been neglected over the years. We have seen great success in neighborhood redevelopment in Indianapolis where we have listened to those who live there and tried to support them."

Mayor Peterson says in addition to aggressive neighborhood redevelopment, the time has come for a blitz similar to the all-out sports campaign this time in the arts. He says a cultural revolution in Indianapolis could have the same dramatic effect on growth and the economy by 2010 that the sports explosion did in the 1980s and 1990s.