When Tamara Zahn took the job as head of Indianapolis Downtown Inc. in 1993, Circle Centre Mall was a hole in the ground. IDI had just undergone a makeover of its own and Zahn's mission was to lead a public-private partnership dedicated to the development, maintenance, and beautification of the city's heart.
Less than 20 years later, downtown Indianapolis was hosting a Super Bowl and drawing rave reviews for its amenities, accessability and pedestrian friendliness.
Indeed, when she looks out the windows of her corner office on the 19th floor of the Chase Tower, Zahn sees a downtown that has literally been transformed during her tenure as head of IDI, a position she announced last February she had decided to leave.
Tamara Zahn grew up in Ft. Wayne and graduated from Indiana University with a degree in real estate. She worked in cities around the country as an urban consultant and started her own business, Zahn Associates, before landing in Indianapolis as IDI's first president. Long acquainted with the city, she saw "a tremendous potential" here.
Zahn was drawn to the city's use of public-private partnerships as "a very powerful tool to bring people together." She also saw possibilities at the then undeveloped White River State Park. "To have that kind of blank canvas in the middle of downtown was an incredible opportunity."
But the first order of business was to stabilize a rapidly eroding urban core. Businesses were moving out. No one was living or shopping there. "The strategy," says Zahn, "was to create value with downtown. Create something people would say was relevant to their lives. I wanted to make a difference every day."
"I always say downtown development is an art, not a science," says Zahn. "There have been huge changes in terms of large buildings, but I'm as excited about the smaller things that have taken place because that's what gives a community personality. That's what helps to make Indianapolis really unique."
Zahn considers the creation of cultural districts in downtown as well as in Broad Ripple and Fountain Square her favorite project of the past 20 years. "I've always taken a broad definition of culture," she says. "I think it's who we are as a community, what's important and how we define ourselves...Beauty, creativity, innovation, relevance, quality of life — the list goes on and on in terms of why culture and art are important."
Now Indianapolis has become a model for other cities to emulate. Zahn attributes Indy's progress to the way public and private sectors have been able to align vision and resources to get things done. "We take it for granted in Indianapolis, but it doesn't happen as often in other cities. This community comes together to solve problems. That's powerful."