Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Super Bowl redux: Testing Indy's capacity

Posted By on Tue, Sep 3, 2013 at 4:00 AM

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A show of hands, please. Is anybody surprised that Indianapolis wants another Super Bowl?

Of course not.

The trash left over from XLVI had barely been swept off Georgia St. before planning for the next bid got underway.

Another bid was a given. Super Bowl XLVI was such a rousing high, it was all but impossible for the city not to want another toke. The Super Bowl, after all, is America's biggest party, an annual corporate orgy marrying the expense account-fueled business class with the professional gladiators whose violent sport has come to so amply satisfy its overworked fans' need for catharsis.

Indy's desire to host this blast was hatched back in the 1970s, when a group of ambitious up-and-comers hit upon the idea of branding their increasingly somnambulant hometown a Sports Capitol.

This was an ingenious stratagem. Sports, it turns out, is like the weather, albeit with balls of varying shapes and sizes. It's something that just about everybody is happy to talk about with strangers; no in-depth knowledge required. Therefore, sports became a theme the city could rally around — which is to say, a cause capable of getting this traditionally stingy community to spend some serious cash.

It worked. The city's Downtown was revitalized with a shopping mall, new and improved hotels, and amenities like the Eiteljorg Museum and an upgraded concert hall. There was even a spillover effect, as Indy became a draw for conventions from around the country.

All of this progress, including a successful stint hosting the Pan Am Games and landing the national headquarters for the NCAA, made going after the Super Bowl inevitable.

But it was not a sure thing. Since the Super Bowl is, first and foremost, a party for the 1 percent, there was griping about whether Indy could provide the kind of sybaritic atmosphere to which the NFL's high rollers (and their minions in the sports press) are accustomed. And what about the weather? How you gonna lounge by the pool with a super model camp follower (or two, or three), if the outside temp's hovering around the freezing mark?

Well, as we now know, God must be a Hoosier, because February 2012 was positively bucolic. Pool parties were still a problem, but hordes of people gathered Downtown to revel in their shirtsleeves. Everyone agreed: a splendid time was had by all.

So here we go again. This time, the hope is that the city will score the 2018 game. On the surface, this appears to be a no-brainer. The 2012 game reportedly had a positive economic impact of about $150 million. Even better, the game provided the city's leaders with a kind of focus that, frankly, is not as apparent under normal circumstances. Super Bowl XLVI became the pretext for long overdue neighborhood revitalization on the Near Eastside and a bevy of infrastructure improvements Downtown, including a redesign of Georgia St. that may require another Super Bowl to finally mean anything.

The Big Game even spawned the best public art project in recent memory, "46 for XLVI," which put murals all over town.

If it takes a Super Bowl to make civic improvements like these happen, so be it. That's good news.

The bad news is that, so far, at least, it seems to take something on the order of a Super Bowl to make this city get off the couch. Yes, the Super Bowl became an occasion for a lot of positive activity. But it must also be said that, for at least two years, planning and fund-raising for the game effectively sucked all the air of the room for other initiatives.

Individual investors are constantly reminded about the importance of a diversified portfolio. You don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. The same is true for cities. While the sports theme has worked wonders here, if Indianapolis is to truly prosper, it needs to be known for more than touchdowns.

The recent IndyFringe theater festival, for instance, recently broke its own attendance record (again), drawing thousands of people to eight venues on and around the Mass Ave corridor. While these numbers don't compare with Super Bowl crowds, they speak to how creative arts and cultural events can supercharge an entire neighborhood for 11 days — at a fraction of the cost in human and financial resources.

The IndyFringe Theatre building is trying to raise funds to expand its facility along the Cultural Trail. This project promises to put a significant, multi-purpose performing arts venue at a hub connecting Mass Ave with other Downtown cultural opportunities. It will cost a scintilla of what hosting the Super Bowl will entail.

Like chewing gum and walking, this city needs to do both — and more — at the same time.

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