Speedway may have been built on motorsports, but some residents think a $500 million redevelopment plan that would transform the small town into a year-round racing-themed destination goes too far.
The plan, which involves 350 acres south of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has become the issue in town at a time when a certain race usually dominates conversations. At the cozy Charlie Brown's Pancake and Steak House on Main Street, patrons mull over the project in-between forkfuls of the diner's signature breakfast items. "It's all they talk about anymore," said longtime waitress Suzi Bowes. The chatter centers on the Speedway Redevelopment Commission and its project, dubbed the "Speed Zone." It calls for new roads, parks, retail, restaurants and entertainment attractions to spruce up the aging Main Street business district and the surrounding neighborhoods. "The area needs to be redeveloped," said Scott Harris, executive director of the redevelopment commission established in 2005. "Its time has come." But the plan has ignited controversy, fueling heated town meetings and allegations that developers simply aren't listening to residents. "They don't care what we have to say," said JoEllen Dotlich, who owns a nearly 50-acre industrial park at 4400 W. 10th St. with her husband. "It just gets to the point where a lot of people are giving up and I just can't give up." Dotlich's property is one of 38 that could be acquired by the commission to make room for a rerouted 16th Street. Officials want to shift the road south, away from the track, to create a pedestrian zone near the racetrack. The commission released a property allocation list in mid-April and said it would resort to eminent domain if it could not work out agreements with property owners. Planners also want to close Georgetown Road south of 25th Street to create a park and pedestrian promenade beside the track. Traffic would be diverted to Lynhurst Drive. Two multi-lane roundabouts also are planned-one at the junction of Crawfordsville Road, 16th Street and Main Street, and one where an extended Holt Road would cross the new 16th Street. These infrastructure changes, Harris said, are "fundamental aspects" of the project, because they reroute traffic and help increase the visibility of Main Street businesses. Moving the roads also creates a campus atmosphere around the racetrack. Some residents contend, however, that improvements can be made without shifting roads. Susan Luebbert, who owns Speedway Monogramming with her husband, Jim, said she shouldn't have to move from her location directly across 16th Street from the main Speedway tunnel. Her business, which sits in a one-story brick building and specializes in embroidered race uniforms, safety equipment and souvenirs, has been at its current location 24 years. Redevelopment officials first told her she could stay in her spot, but in late April, she got a call from Harris, who said her business had been put on the acquisition list. "We seem to find out all of this stuff after the fact," Luebbert said. "Everything is stamped and done already, and we don't have any say-so on anything, even at the hearings." She said she is now in "redevelopment limbo," because she doesn't know whether she can expand or make improvements. "Should we invest in our business? But we may not be here tomorrow, so why should we spend our money on this?" she said. "I think that a lot of us are just sitting back and seeing what happens and getting upset because we're not being contacted." Harris, for his part, said the commission openly communicates with residents and has hosted hundreds of public meetings to hear opinions as the plan gains speed. He said change can be difficult, especially when the project aims to return a tired town to its former glory. Restoring a town When Speedway was founded in 1926-15 years after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway rose from the surrounding cornfields-it was billed as a city of the future. Roads were designed to accommodate cars, not horses, and town planners specifically built neighborhoods so houses faced away from the factories that employed most residents. "They went out of their way to make sure it wasn't going to be an unplanned, haphazard community," said Charles Bennett, a Speedway teacher who worked with his students to help the town get on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1950s and 1960s, the seven block Main Street served as the vibrant center of town, with a grocery store, two barbershops, a pharmacy and a cinema. As factory work shifted and new shopping centers opened across town, however, Main Street suffered, said Donald Davidson, IMS' historian. Today, a few businesses remain, but the street is plagued by vacant buildings and deteriorating façades. The commission wants to change that by building Main Street into a destination for race fans and Speedway's 12,750 or so residents. "This is a very historic area, one of the hubs of motorsports in the early 1900s," Harris said. "We want to re-create that, keep some of the old-style, historic aspects of this area." New retail, condos The Speed Zone project calls for widening Main Street, building an interactive "racing wall of fame" in front of the Praxair plant that lines the east side of the thoroughfare, and adding mixed-use retail and condominium space on both sides of the street. Harris said he also hopes to attract race teams, a racing museum or other entertainment options to bring people to the area. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway site, planners recommended that track officials move the Hall of Fame Museum from the track infield to the street and add a hotel or conference center. Insiders have speculated for years about possible hotel improvements at IMS. Fred Nation, IMS executive vice president of communications, said the racetrack has started looking into the matter. "We have issued a process to evaluate whether a new hotel and/or what kind of a hotel might make sense," he said. Finally, the commission wants to brand Speedway and build the roundabouts, both with racing themes, to reinforce that "you're in the racing capital of the world," Harris said. The town will pay for the proposed infrastructure changes and the Main Street façade and streetscape enhancements through a series of bonds paid off by revenue from the town's 350-acre tax increment financing district. The rest of the funding will come from public-private sources, Harris said. Construction could begin on the 16th Street change later this year. By the Indianapolis 500's centennial celebration in 2011, Harris hopes to see a reconfigured road system, a new park beside the track, and improvements on Main Street. Staying competitive Those changes could also help IMS, which is under increased competition from other racetracks around the country. Rollie Helmling, the state's director of motorsports development, said he's traveled to every major racing venue nationwide to see what other cities offer. Most have restaurants, destination retailers such as Cabela's and other attractions that sit right outside the track, he said, giving visitors a complete experience. Race fans here, Helmling said, largely come to Speedway for the race and leave shortly thereafter. "They just come in for the day," he said. "They park their car, they go to the event inside, and then there's not much reason for them to stay."