Culture in the Cornfields

February 12, 2006

Writers Group column for Feb. 15 and thereafter
740 words

INDIANAPOLIS — When the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church announced recently it would be leaving its inner-city location for the affluent suburb of Carmel, Indianapolis leaders were disappointed but not surprised.  

Suburban flight has been going on since the 1950s and, high gas prices notwithstanding, shown no signs of letting up. Mayors from LA to Baltimore conceded the residential market to suburbia decades ago.

“While I hate to see the Greek Orthodox Church move, there’s a fundamental reality that it is now a very, very long drive for a lot of their members,” said Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson.   

What the cities haven’t conceded is the market on cultural and sports facilities: football stadiums, symphony orchestras, art museums and zoos. Even as residents moved away from central cities, they would return for professional sporting events, to visit cultural institutions or to enjoy nightlife distinctive to downtowns.

Now, in a trend that has some urban planners worried, suburbs have jumped big-time into the cultural amenities market. That is certainly the case in Carmel where an $80-million, 1,600-seat concert hall is under development, being hailed as “the crown jewel” in a complex of retail, dining and entertainment facilities.   

Direct competition with Indy? “Absolutely not,” insists Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, who says “edge cities” like his are competing against other edge cities, which are working in tandem with urban partners to attract new employers and residents to their regions. He cites as examples Dublin, Ohio (Columbus), Overland Park,  Kan. (Kansas City) and Naperville, Ill. (Chicago).   

“We see our concert hall as contributing to the Central Indiana region,” Brainard says. Noting that 65 percent of the U.S. population lives in suburbia, he adds, “It’s ludicrous to expect 65 percent of the country to voluntarily forego culture and arts in their communities.”

On the other hand, demand for cultural arts is not infinite. Just as the Indianapolis area couldn’t possibly sustain two professional football teams, it might not be possible to maintain two symphony-tailored concert halls. Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis, home to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, seats 1,786.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, now with the Manhattan Institute Center for Civic Innovation, says the economics are complex.

“Enlightened mayors of suburbs want their cities to be real communities, and not inevitably part of the troubled status of exurbs: the early suburbs that now are often bleak,” he says.

But the inner city desperately needs the hospitality industry jobs connected to cultural and entertainment venues, he says.

 “Indianapolis has worked very hard for decades to become the psychological and economic hub for the state’s growth,” Goldsmith says. “Carmel has more upscale jobs, more tech jobs, and unfortunately now some of the professionals. But the inner ring neighborhoods need the hospitality and entertainment jobs and thus it seems rationale that downtown be the entertainment and cultural center. If Carmel erodes that base, it is not in Carmel’s best interest.”

“I understand Mayor Jim’s laudable objectives but unintended consequences could be adverse.”

 Other cities are facing the same challenge, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and Minneapolis, but in most cases it’s too early to tell if suburban cultural centers are siphoning off the customer base from downtowns.

 In Maryland, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays regularly in two venues, the downtown Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the new $100 million Strathmore Hall in northern Bethesda.

The Feb. 7 Baltimore Sun reported that average capacity of crowds at the suburban site has been 84 to 88 percent, compared to 60 percent at Meyerhoff Hall. "Those who thought the orchestra couldn’t go into a second market have been proven wrong," said Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore’s president and CEO.

And those who thought the new facility would lure some patrons from Downtown have been proven right.

Unlike Baltimore, whose population dropped from 736,000 to 651,000 during the 1990s, Indianapolis – population 781,000 — enjoyed modest growth, including a boom in Downtown housing. Peterson says he is heartened by those statistics and by other evidence of city revitalization.

Bottom line, says Peterson, “it’s a free market out there” and that includes the cultural arts.

 “The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra isn’t going anywhere. Carmel is building a large concert hall. I understand that. I can’t criticize it. It’s a decision they’ve made about how to spend their tax dollars. Downtown Indianapolis is always going to be the cultural and economic center of its region.”

Andrea Neal is former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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