The transformation of Indianapolis from rust belt city to gem of the mid-west demonstrates the importance of civic leadership.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published August 09, 2011
Progress is not created by contented people. - Frank Tyger
Although we are Canada's ninth-largest city and larger than 460 of the United States' 513 urban areas (those with more than 40,000 residents), we're not accustomed to thinking of Hamilton as an important North American city. We punch below our weight.
Cities, however, change over time. In 1960, Indianapolis, Indiana was home to 476,258 people and ranked as the 26th largest city in the US. In 1970, the municipality of Indianapolis was amalgamated with its suburbs under a unified government called Unigov, and it leapt ahead in the population rankings to 11th.
This sudden expansion in population did little to disguise Indianapolis' economic and social decline. Indianapolis' manufacturing-centric economy had been decimated by outsourcing and globalization and like many post-industrial cities in the "rust belt", its urban core was decaying. Its disparaging nickname was "India-no-place".
In 1976, William Hudnut III, a Republican and former pastor, was elected mayor and began an intense program of economic development and downtown revitalization. He issued bonds to fund civic projects, implemented tax incentives to encourage companies to relocate there, and entered into public-private partnerships to rebuild the downtown.
Hudnut seized on sports as something that Indianapolis could become known for. He developed a vision of the city as the "Amateur Sports Capital of America". He attracted the national offices for rowing, synchronized swimming, track and field, diving and gymnastics. With help from a foundation called the Lilly Endowment, numerous sports facilities were built, including a track and field stadium and a velodrome.
When Hudnut proposed building a 60,500 seat stadium, many local residents dismissed the idea. After all, Indianapolis lacked a major-league baseball or football team. Who would play in Hudnut's "white elephant"?
Hudnut was undeterred. Construction on the stadium began in 1982, and Hudnut started looking for a tenant, attracting the Baltimore Colts in time to open the stadium in 1984. His gamble had paid off. The decision to build the downtown Hoosier Dome was visionary, further accelerating Indianapolis' program of downtown renewal.
Other achievements during his term included landing a 6,500 United Airlines maintenance facility and hosting the Pan Am Games. Today, Indianapolis is the mid-west's "shining example", "a rust belt beacon for how to reform", and one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. For his role in Indianapolis' transformation, Hudnut is widely regarded as one of America's most successful, visionary mayors.
Compare this brand of leadership to our current civic leadership and clear differences emerge.
Hudnut acted boldly and courageously. He proposed building a downtown stadium although he lacked a tenant because he truly believed in his vision of Indianapolis as a sports capital.
In Hamilton, we watched in dismay as our decision about the best place to build a stadium was hijacked by a team's empty threats to move.
Hudnut developed a vision of Indianapolis as the vibrant Amateur Sports Capital of America, and then he successfully championed it.
In Hamilton, when Mayor Bratina was urged to commit to our collective vision of light rail transit (LRT), he wrote, "The question before us is not not whether LRT has a champion, but whether all elements can be pulled together in an affordable, practical manner that can be supported by a majority of Council."
Can you imagine Mayor Hudnut saying that about building the Hoosier Dome, or attracting an NFL team, or rebuilding his downtown, or landing the Pan Am Games?
Bratina is intelligent and well-spoken. When he needs to be, he's personable and charming. He has a strong rapport in the community built over his years as a radio announcer and Ward 2 Councillor and plenty of political capital left over from his upset election victory.
He has, in other words, everything he needs to articulate and sell a vision of Hamilton to Hamiltonians, but instead of convincing Hamilton's remaining doubters and campaigning strongly at the provincial level, he's working against a vision for Hamilton that we've already been sold on.
Visionary mayors anticipate criticism and develop responses to it in advance. Visionary mayors develop creative ways to fund crucial investments in the cities they govern. Visionary mayors are in for the long haul, promoting and defending their projects - and their legacies.
Of course, Indianapolis' transformation from rust belt city to gem of the mid-west was not accomplished solely by Hudnut. Just like in Hamilton, Indianapolis' citizen and business groups supported a revitalization agenda with a downtown focus. The difference is that, in the character of William Hudnut, Indianapolis had a champion.
Where is Hamilton's champion?
This article was first published in the August 2011 edition of Urbanicity.
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