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Indianapolis, an Amazon longshot, has its own plans for success

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Growing tech scene, neighborhood renewal already helping city move forward

Monument Circle in Indianapolis
Photo Courtesy of Jason Lavengood, Visit Indy

Denver, Chicago, Austin, New York City, sure. But Indianapolis? When Indiana’s capital was announced as one of 20 finalists for Amazon’s HQ2 competition, it was like the Wayne’s World blue-screen scene about Delaware (and the state’s lack of cultural reference points) come to life.

Other cities, with their growing tech scenes, regional transportation hubs, and long retail legacies, seemed like more appropriate contenders. For those unfamiliar with Indianapolis—and there were many—it seemed like a left-field pick.

“We don’t have a bad flavor,” says the city’s administrator for long-range planning, Brad Beaubien. “It’s more of a vanilla flavor. When we hosted the Super Bowl in 2012, people came here not knowing what to expect.”

Based on national reactions, many are still relatively unfamiliar. Naming so many finalists may play into Amazon’s plans to pit cities against each other in a race for subsidies, tax breaks, and benefits. But clearly, Jeff Bezos and others see something in the Hoosier State.

What’s unfolding in Indianapolis looks to many like a mid-size city that’s diversifying, building up transit and park infrastructure, and developing its own tech scene, all while maintaining affordability and making serious attempts at equitable development.

Indianapolis has no shortage of challenges, and attempting broad-based prosperity and actually achieving it are two radically different things. Many city officials spoke about the welcome jumpstart Amazon might provide Indy. But in many ways, large and small—with public funding for new bus rapid-transit lines, one of the nation’s fastest-growing tech scenes, the continued benefits of a new Cultural Trail, and a 2020 plan for the city’s bicentennial focused on reviving key neighborhoods—Indy already seems to be on the right path.

“We have a civic culture that’s really good at taking on and accomplishing big, common goals,” says Bill Taft, executive director of the Indianapolis Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the local chapter of the national development nonprofit. “Look at the way we’ve invested in downtown. It’s really blossomed after the [post-Great Recession] recovery happened.”

Photo Courtesy of Conrad Piccirillo

Bounce from the Big Game

Indianapolis has two layers of reality, as Taft explains. The first, and the one that many who only know the city in passing might consider, is that of a classic Rust Belt city.

Indianapolis residents fled its downtown during the ’60s and ’70s, creating a sleepy center that some call Naptown, and has seen manufacturing disappear. More than 30,000 high-paying, low-skilled jobs disappeared in the last 30 years, leaving a huge economic hole. It’s been a challenge for the state and the city, which, like other mid-size Midwest cities, has struggled with empty real estate downtown and slow economic growth.

But, Taft says, the city also has a rich civic culture and a history of public-private partnerships, which, over the last decade, have helped the city “accomplish big, common goals.”

Two key events exemplified the way different groups coalesced around big challenges. In 2012, the city hosted the Super Bowl. Much of the attention was on the game, and how the event capitalized on Indy’s recent legacy of sports and stadium expansions. But the real story was how the city and local partners worked out an innovative legacy strategy, using the game as a focal point to invest in downtown beyond the big game.

The result of those legacy programs included expanding the convention center and redesigning the Georgia Street corridor downtown. There was also significant investment in streetscaping and affordable housing in the city’s Near Eastside neighborhood. It all helped kickstart downtown, adding momentum to successful redevelopment efforts in Broad Ripple and Fountain Square, neighborhoods known for dining, nightlife, and galleries.

Cultural Trail
Lavengood Photography
Cultural Trail
Lavengood Photography

In 2013, the city’s Cultural Trail opened, an 8-mile linear park lined with art installations and bike trails that threaded together downtown with other cultural districts across the city. The decade-plus effort to develop, design, and fund the trail showcased public-private partnership in action. It’s since been heralded as a masterpiece of public space design and placemaking (“the boldest step of any American city towards supporting bicyclists and pedestrians”). Along with the RebuildIndy plan, which invested half a billion dollars in infrastructure, including new sidewalks, complete streets, and bike lanes, downtown made an exponential jump in livability and pedestrian friendliness.

“There wasn’t an easy way to connect the downtown,” says Beaubien. “It’s not tall, it’s broad. There were a lot of parking lots. The Cultural Trail helped tie it together.”

The momentum from those investments in a more livable Indy was reinforced by the emergence of the tech scene. While two key pillars get much of the press—Salesforce, which acquired local firm ExactTarget in 2013 and opened its second-largest office, and Infosys, an Indian company that opened an innovation center—smaller firms and startups at hubs such as High Alpha and Union 525 have also played significant roles. The region added more than 9,000 digital service jobs between 2010 and 2015, according to a recent Brookings Institution report, which also noted the city had the seventh-fastest-growing tech scene in the nation.

The momentum is poised to continue, thanks to talent from local institutions like Purdue and Indiana University, as well as new recruitment efforts, like the Xtern internship program and the new $250 million Next Level Fund, a state-sponsored effort to lure more venture capital investment.

Purdue Polytechnic, a project that’s part of the Great Places initiative in Englewood Village
Courtesy LISC

Expanding opportunity in Indy

A new Amazon headquarters would certainly push the city to the next level. Many tout the former 103-acre GM Stamping Plant on the White River as a perfect spot for a potential campus.

But the city already has a handful of new programs and initiatives, Amazon or not, that look to capitalize on its recent gains. The passage of a transit referendum last year that will help fund three electric-powered bus rapid-transit lines across Indianapolis, as well as the 2020 Plan for neighborhood development, will link together these newly developed areas. An additional community building effort, the $21 million Great Family Initiative, funded by the United Way and focused on early childhood education, financial support, and workforce development, also seeks to empower upward mobility.

“The Legacy Initiative from the Super Bowl taught us that if we combine efforts, work in an equitable way, and connect it to a bigger community effort, we can succeed,” says Taft. “Now we want to celebrate our bicentennial by helping neighborhoods where our history was made, but which have recently been left out of growth.”

Growth often brings affordability and displacement challenges. The $200 million Great Places 2020 plan, hopes to avoid potential development downsides by partnering with LISC and local community groups, such as the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, and Indy Chamber.

To encourage transparency and keep everyone working toward common goals, the city is launching IndyVitals, a parallel urban data project to keep the public and everyone involved up-to-date on common metrics about each neighborhood.

“Ultimately, we’re a city that still needs more people,” says Taft. “Poor neighborhoods lost 57 percent of their population between 1960 and 2010. There’s a lot of space to move in without pushing people out.”

Throughout Indianapolis, projects and partnerships exist that are working to strengthen more neighborhoods and give more residents a leg up. HQ2 would put the city on the map in a much different way. But as the city pushes forward on transit, tech, and balanced growth, an Amazon headquarters, and Bezos’s billions, looks more and more like a detour as opposed to the only road forward.