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A visionary city: Velodrome privatized 

A welcoming sight, just outside of the Velodrome. Photo by Mark Lee
  • A welcoming sight, just outside of the Velodrome. Photo by Mark Lee

In its past, the Major Taylor Velodrome on Indianapolis' west side drew competitive cyclists from all over the world. During a recent visit, the standout venue of Lake Sullivan Sports Complex was a far cry from its glory days, surrounded by overgrown grass patches and rusted metal. In places, the façade was more chip than paint, while the skate park's concrete base had become a showcase for local graffiti talent. Officials say the demise is due in large part to a waning interest from the general public.

"Over the decades, you've had some shift in how the city itself has been structurally put together as far as amateur sports," said Stuart Lowry, director of Indy Parks. "I think over time, you just didn't have as much attention to the cycling."

Shared ownership of the sports complex between the city and Marian University may change that.

Talks of privatization began in early 2008. "We were starting to look at all of our assets across the system, and look at deferred maintenance and challenges and where we needed to go," Lowry said during a phone interview last month. City leadership issued a request for proposals, and eventually chose Marian to step in as manager.

Submitted late last year, Marian's strategic plan to bring the complex up to standards and "create a cycling hub for the city" targeted the existing Velodrome and BMX course. Under the new agreement, Marian will undertake the $2 million in capital improvements over the next 10 years, assuming management of operations and maintenance of the property. The school's plan of action also includes designing an internal criterium or road course, a new cyclocross course and a 4k walking and jogging trail.

With Mayor Greg Ballard's blessing, the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council approved Marian University's proposal at an April 11 meeting.

"These are structured partnerships that really reward the operators to do their capital up front," Lowry said, "because they're going to then have a stronger revenue stream and offset their own costs. So I would think in the next two years, you're going to see some pretty dramatic changes."

It's the the outside façade of Lake Sullivan Sports Complex that appears to need the most renovation, including the bleachers surrounding the Velodrome, pictured above. Photo by Mark Lee
  • It's the the outside façade of Lake Sullivan Sports Complex that appears to need the most renovation, including the bleachers surrounding the Velodrome, pictured above. Photo by Mark Lee

A clear choice

Built in 1982, the Velodrome was named for Marshall "Major" Taylor, a local cyclist who suffered through racial discrimination at the turn of the 20th century to become the first African-American world champion athlete. The venue supported world-class events like the 1987 Pan-Am Games. Since then, however, that distinction has dulled.

"The Velodrome used to be this really impressive place," said Kevin Whited, board president of the bike advocacy group IndyCog. He was among the cyclists who raced on the track in its prime. "Here I moved back 22 years later and the Velodrome's dead."

Indy Parks sensed potential community value in the overdue rejuvenation. "This was our opportunity to put the city back on the map," Lowry said.

For the last several years, Marian's cycling team has been one of the complex's few regular users, holding practices in the Velodrome. "The track itself is in very, very good condition, and that's a real blessing," said Head Coach Dean Peterson. "I think that makes this vision that we have very viable."

Peterson explained the school's incentive. "We agreed that it was a need for the community, and we felt that we were really in the best position to be good stewards of that area and push this forward for the cycling community," he said.

With a clear investment in the future of the venue, the school was an ideal candidate for co-owner.

"They've got some natural connections as a cycling hub and a multi-national championship program," Lowry said. "They've already got the passion and the spirit and the vision."

Dollars and sense

According to Lowry, delegating management was a practical move for cash-strapped Indianapolis. "When you look at a partnership where someone else can come in and take over operations and bring in significant capital dollars, that leverages the public dollars and increases the public space much more rapidly," he said. "It's many decades of challenges that we just haven't been able to address fiscally, so this made sense."

Besides the eased burden of upkeep and improvement, the city will benefit further from a profit-share model. As press materials circulated by Ballard's office in early April detailed, "the City will receive 10 percent of all gross revenue above $250,000."

But the deal has invited concern that the city may have lost out on a potential moneymaking boon. If the venue is successful in attracting future competitions and events, generating massive amounts of revenue in ticket sales, did the city sell itself short with a 10% stake? Had Ballard taken on those capital improvements himself, might he have found another way out of Indianapolis' current financial woes?

IndyCog's Whited, who holds a master's in public administration, offered a different interpretation. "In certain cases I think (privatization is) almost necessary," he said, referencing Ballard's recent transfer of the city's parking meters to ParkIndy. "If the city would have kept ownership of those parking meters, think of all the money they could have made. But then they would have had to spend taxpayers' money to upgrade the systems and then raise their parking meters on top of it? It just wouldn't have flown well.

"How would the taxpayers have felt, had Mayor Ballard started taking tax money and fixing up this bike park?"

Serious cyclists have been the main users of the Velodrome in the last few years. Photo by Mark Lee
  • Serious cyclists have been the main users of the Velodrome in the last few years. Photo by Mark Lee

Ambitious vision

The planned renovation is also a fitting developmen with the city's move toward human-powered transportation. The shift is evident in changes to infrastructure and resident lifestyle. "We're seeing a much stronger connectivity," Lowry said. "We're seeing more cycling, more awareness of cycling."

Marian is wasting no time in working to boost that awareness, revamping both facilities and programming at the complex. As of late May, employees had already begun to set up shop, repainting office spaces. Meanwhile, Coach Peterson is heading a four-part regional development camp this summer, four-day-long workshops June through September open to riders between ages 14–22. It's the city's hope, though, that programming will expand to include other age groups.

"We want to celebrate cycling for every generation," Lowry said. "We want to get younger kids in there learning safety, as well as running collegiate events." The city will try to grow the park's user base as it continues to promote the biking lifestyle.

"I see this as becoming much more active for special events and public outreach," Lowry said. "This is not about trying to have things that are not accessible to the public. It really is truly about opening it back up to the public."

Upon completion, the renovated park could become instrumental in overhauling the city's transportation system. A fee-based Park and Ride program has been proposed, which would allow commuters to take full advantage of the trails leading downtown.

That kind of shift in livability may have a direct impact on the population of transplant urbanites."A lot of the younger generation coming into this city, this is what they want. They want to have those fitness choices," Lowry said.

Lowry credits Mayor Ballard and the SustainIndy initiative, specifically its Bikeways program, with bringing the city up to speed alongside national trends in green living. "His idea of connectivity is just spot-on to what cities need to do to get these asset bases back together," he said.

"This is all about leveraging over time and thinking as a visionary city for the next few decades, where do we want to go?"

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