Indianapolis — A boom town right in the heart of the frost belt? At a time when most budget-pinched Northern cities are pulling back to recoup from the loss of population and industry, Indianapolis gives every appearance of an economically sound city that is somehow surging ahead.
A visitor who has recently traveled to other Northern cities cannot help but notice the contrast. Instead of announcements of transit cutbacks, he hears a lively radio ad here telling of service increasesm on three metro lines. A stop at the city's palatial public library, a spot where many financially strapped cities have cut down on hours, reveals that it is open at least part of every day and an impressive 12 hours on weekdays.
But it is the wide variety of new construction projects under way in the heart of this city's bustling and freshly beautified downtown that provides the sharpest contrast of all:
* In hopes of luring a larger share of the nation's convention and trade business, Indianapolis aims to double the exhibit space of its present convention center by building a new $70 million domed stadium.
* The state's only professional theater has just moved into a rehabilitated movie house that is the cornerstone of a major revitalization project. A new downtown shopping mall is to be built nearby.
* Designs are almost finished and the land acquired for a 250-acre urban park along the banks of the White River.
* On the city's joint Indiana University- Purdue University campus, where a mammoth tennis stadium recently has been built to house the US Open Clay Court championships, work is under way on what is expected to be the largest indoor swimming pool in the country.
At a time when many rundown central cities look as if they had lost their only friends, how does Indianapolis manage to look as if it has a host of best friends who really care about its future? And where does this city with a Triple A bond rating get all this money?
The answers to these questions lie in large part in the strong public-private partnership that has evolved here over the last two decades.
Years ago a group of business, education, labor, and other community leaders, convinced that a city falls behind if it's standing still, went to the mayor with an offer to firmly involve themselves in the city's economic future. It led to the formation of what now is called the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, a 100-member advisory group. The committee can act quickly to study almost any economic problem the city encounters and propose solutions.
"If I had to put my finger on one reason for the rejuvenation, I'd say it was community leadership," says Charles Bonser, dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. "And I don't think the politicians could have done it by themselves. The decision was made long ago in Indianapolis to take the bull by the horns to make sure that [the city] didn't go the usual route of older urban areas but would survive and prosper."
"I do think there are an unusually large number of people in this town who really care about the place and are willing to work awfully hard for its benefit ," agrees James Morris, vice-president of the Lilly Endowment, a charitable trust that many here consider to be the key catalyst in the surge of apparent prosperity.
There is no question that generous private contributions have made a big difference. The Lilly Endowment, established by the late pharmaceutical entrepreneur, Eli Lilly, has given many millions to city projects. Its help has been particularly strong in the last few years.
"Our trustees felt that . . . the challenge was to help Indianapolis become economically strong and attractive for new investment and new jobs, rather than to help it remedially," says Mr. Morris. "You can't just take the future for granted and assume that the jobs will be here."
Many others in Indianapolis, including the Krannert Charitable Trust, local businesses, and individuals, also have given generously. One beautification project, which calls for newly bricked streets from the State Capitol to the Market Square area, is 90 percent privately funded. Some $100,000 of the total was raised by selling individual bricks for $25 each. Each brick will carry the donor's name and be cemented into an area he chooses.
But Mayor William H. Hudnut III contends that it is the sense of public and private teamwork accompanying the dollars that has really made them work.
"I don't want an adversary relationship between the public and private sector ," says the lanky Republican Mayor Hudnut, who is serving as president of the National League of Cities, is a firm supporter of the Reagan administration proposals for economic recovery. "So often in government we get on bureaucratic blinders that make it hard for business to succeed," he says.
"Philosophically, I believe that the private sector is the goose that lays the golden egg. The best way for any city to solve its funding problems is to broaden its tax base through economic development. For that reason I'm not ashamed to go to any number of ground breakings and ribbon cuttings, because that means progress is being made."
In the mayor's view, two reasons Indianapolis (pop. 1,158,000) has fared well are its inherently conservative fiscal approach ("we're not overextended") and its relatively light tax burden on the manufacturing sector. The city is working hard to make its economy more diverse by recruiting high-technology companies. A new video disc manufacturing facility and a fiber optics laboratory are gains in this direction.
Relatively peaceful labor relations and political and economic stability, which some attribute in part to the unified government system (Unigov) that ties the city and Marion County together in several service and tax areas, are considered ingredients in the success story as well.
So is the mayor's personal effort as a communicator. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University and a former Presbyterian minister, he spends considerable time chatting with local residents on TV talk shows and in school or factory cafeterias. He meets regularly with an advisory group of labor leaders and even personally records a leave-your-phone-number-because-we'd- like-to-help-you message for those calling his office after hours.
Despite all the good news, not everything in Indianapolis is looking rosy. Like many other older cities, the Indiana capital has lost some businesses over the last decade, and it has unemployment problems. The police, transportation, and park departments, as well as the mayor's office, have all taken significant personnel cuts in recent years. Although the local and state tax bite here is considered one of the lowest in the country, many of residents are still smarting over a new 1 percent county sales tax on restaurant and tavern food and drink. It will be used to pay off bonds for the city's $40 million share of the expanded convention facilities. The tax, passed by the city-county council and slated to take effect this summer, is the target of at least one local lawsuit.