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Commentary By Aaron M. Renn

Downtown Indy In Position of Strength

Cities, Cities Infrastructure & Transportation, Tax & Budget

Indianapolis was one of the earliest and most successful cities at revitalizing its Downtown after an era of abandonment.  A lot of this came from a willingness to be different and to take calculated risks that ultimately paid off.

One of the most famous examples is using sports as an economic development strategy. It’s hard to relate to why this was so innovative, because today every city wants to host sporting events. But that wasn’t always the case. Yes, cities had competed over events like the Olympics. But the potential in sports was not yet realized. Indianapolis helped pioneer the field, and captured first mover advantage.

As just one example of what Indianapolis was able to do, it built the Hoosier Dome without a team to play in it. Normally “build it and they will come” is a pretty dumb strategy. But it worked out for Indy. One reason why is that Indy made its move in 1983, before anyone had thought to do something like this and when it was still possible to get an NFL team to relocate without putting a billion dollars on the table.

Indianapolis has continued to innovate, such as with the unique Cultural Trail. Nothing else in the country has its combination of design, making biking safe for children in a busy downtown; art; green infrastructure; and public-private financing model. No wonder it got such good national press.

Blue Indy is another example. Car share had been done before, but by going all-electric, Indy was able to put its own unique twist on it.

Not all attempts to innovate work, but Indianapolis has established a pretty good track record.

But civic government led initiatives are only part of what makes a downtown tick. In thriving commercial centers like the Chicago Loop or Lower Manhattan, most investment occurs organically from private investors in the marketplace. If your city doesn’t have this sort of private sector investment, then you are just building a Potemkin Village, propped up by tax dollars.

Fortunately, Indianapolis has good things going on here too. The biggest is the rise of the technology industry in the region and Downtown. Exact Target is the biggest win. It was founded and built locally, then acquired by for $2.5 billion – a huge exit for a city like Indianapolis. Salesforce continues to be a major Downtown tech employer. Other tech companies have also taken root Downtown, with big effects on demand for housing and restaurants.

Urban tech has gotten big in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston, but outside of those biggest of cities, Indy is at or near the top in downtown tech performance. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institute ranked Indianapolis seventh in the country in growing its market share of tech jobs nationally in the last five years. Most cities actually lost tech market share. And a report from Joel Kotkin found that Indianapolis ranked fifth in the country in its percentage growth in STEM jobs – science, technology, engineering, and math – in the last decade. Indy grew its STEM jobs by 68%.

Not all of these jobs are Downtown. Indy also has strong suburban technology companies. But thousands of high-paying tech jobs are Downtown, and have made a big impact there.

Going forward, Indianapolis should try to identify other sectors that can become the next tech industry in terms of growing high-end white-collar jobs Downtown. Nationally, traditionally employers like banks have stagnated or shrank their downtown employment in Indianapolis-sized cities. A lot of job growth has come from sectors like tourism, entertainment, education and medicine. These are great jobs, but the city should look to complement them with additional high-end private sector services. The decision by Cummins to open a major office is a big win for the city.

In other future development, the city should look to shift the design of its streets to have a better balance between serving the sports and events industries, and emerging Downtown uses like residential and high tech. Events are about getting people in and out. Residents and tech workers want to engage with the city on an all-day basis. This requires more pedestrian friendly designs.

But the good news for the city is that these future developments can be built on a platform of strength. Thanks to a long history of public projects and private sector investment from industries like tech, the state of Downtown Indianapolis is strong.

This piece originally appeared in the Indianapolis Star


Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in Indianapolis Star