News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

January 22, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Indianapolis will be on display for the nation with the Super Bowl coming to town

Someone immersed in a crash diet to make a smashing impression at a class reunion may get the desired effect.

But are those former schoolmates seeing the real person? Who was that person three months ago? Who will that person be three months into the future? Three years from now? Or is the image in front of the reunion-goers merely an ideal, grand but temporary and unsustainable?

What if every day was Super Bowl Sunday for Indianapolis and the Hoosier state? What if “street teams” of local people always greeted visitors  with tips on how to find parking, hotels, restaurants and fun stuff to do? What if we routinely worked four years ahead, committing significant amounts of public and private resources to improve bridges, sidewalks, roads and parks, and reviving blighted neighborhoods?

An estimated 110 million television viewers around the world will watch the Super Bowl XLVI festivities on Feb. 5. Another 150,000 will come to Indianapolis for the weekend, where the downtown “Super Bowl Village” along Georgia Street treats pedestrians with massive TV screens and live music, for free. Of that group, 63,000 will actually sit inside Lucas Oil Stadium at game time to see the NFL’s finest square off for football’s greatest prize — the Lombardi Trophy and the label “world champions.”

The Indianapolis and Indiana the outside world sees will be impressive.

The capital city has been working toward this moment since 2008, and it shows. Eateries and clubs are primed for action. No burned-out letters on the neon lights. Give Indy credit — it bid to host pro sports’ most hyped event, landed that opportunity, absorbed the extensive costs of preparation ($187 million to upgrade infrastructure, and $4 million for added police security, for example), and then worked steadily, as Hoosiers do, to deliver on that promise. To paraphrase Pvt. Russell Ziskey in the movie “Stripes,” Indy’s in good shape, walking tall, looking good.

Some of the improvements will benefit Indianapolis for years, even decades. Ideally, the commitment and sense of urgency to implement those changes for this one-time event will last for years and decades, too. If so, Hoosiers will prove that it doesn’t take a Super Bowl to bring out our best and that Indiana is a good place to be, as a guest or a citizen.

Many outsiders still need convincing.

“The rest of the country seems to have a pretty low expectation for Indiana as a whole, and Indianapolis in particular, going back to — and I hate to have to say it — the old Nap-Town days,” said Kimberly Donahue, who teaches marketing and management at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business in Indianapolis. (The moniker suggested Indy was a great place to take a nap. Others derisively called it “India-no-place.”)

The reputation began to change in the 1980s and ’90s, with the construction of the Hoosier Dome, the relocation of the Colts to Indianapolis, and the town’s evolution into a stage for high-profile sporting events such as the Pan-Am Games, NCAA basketball and track championships, and Big Ten Conference hoops tourneys. A walkable downtown atmosphere developed around the Dome (and then its successor, Lucas Oil Stadium), Conseco (now Bankers Life) Fieldhouse (home of the Indiana Pacers), Victory Field (the Indianapolis Indians’ ballpark), and the now-expanded Convention Center.

The AFC champion team (either New England or Baltimore) will stay on the IUPUI campus, and “could walk to Lucas Oil Stadium, if they wanted to,” Donahue said.

Donahue, a former Chicago and Ohio resident, has lived in Indianapolis for 20 years and appreciates its amenities. “I honestly believe, if there is any day I want to do something, I can find something fun to do,” she said, “and I’m never lacking for options.”

That easy-access downtown distinguishes Indy from most of the previous Super Bowl cities. It is the real Indianapolis, and has been for years.

Donahue recalled a piece written by a Los Angeles Times travel correspondent, who was sent last year — much to his displeasure — to check out the host city for Super Bowl XLVI. “And when he got here, he just fell in love with the city,” she said. “And the only bad thing he could say was, Hoosiers aren’t good at giving directions.” (The “street team,” with its 8,300 volunteers to personally welcome newcomers in the 10 days leading up to the game, should ease that complaint.)

Of course, that crew is not permanent. The tents filled with music and food will pull up stakes, too.

But the $12-million revitalization of the Georgia Street corridor — the heart of “Super Bowl Village” — won’t disappear.

“These are going to be noticeable changes,” said Kyle Anderson, an economist at the Kelley School.

Downtown Indy may have to grow as a residential destination to take full advantage of the upgrades. As of now, only 22,000 people live in that central district, according to Anderson’s calculations. Unless that population grows, some of the restaurants and nightspots that have opened downtown since the Super Bowl site selection in 2008 may not survive long after Feb. 5. The relatively low concentration of downtown residents “makes it hard to sustain a huge number of restaurants,” Anderson said.

“I think, over the next six months to a year, you’re going to see some restaurants shut down,” he added.

One enduring effect of the Super Bowl will be an enhanced self-esteem for Hoosiers. The incoming fans will hail from either the East Coast (Baltimore, New England or the New York Giants) or the West Coast (San Francisco). Some know little about Indiana or the Midwest, and likely suspect this is a land of the backward, the slow-moving, and the slow-thinking. Those of us who call this home know better, and figure this is the chance to prove it.

Confidence could be the most positive after-effect, said Donahue, a former Ohio and Chicago resident who’s called Indy home for the past 20 years. Like a paved road or a repainted shopfront, civic pride needs maintenance, too.

“A sense of pride is only going to last a fixed period of time, unless the people of Indianapolis and Indiana keep it up,” she said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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