At 6’5″ and armed with a gregarious personality, William Hudnut has always been larger than life. Now a bronze sculpture seated on a bench at Hudnut Commons on Maryland Street portrays the ex-mayor who brought the Colts to Indianapolis as even bigger than his considerable persona.
Hours before the Indianapolis Colts hosted the Houston Texans, the mayor who rolled the dice in the early ’80s and proclaimed, “If we build it, they will come,” was honored by friends, family, former aides and leaders of the town that he truly built.
“As I said up there, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman,” said Hudnut, seated by his likeness portrayed in shirt sleeves because as the city’s so-called Mayor Minister he often struck an informal tone with the citizenry. “We are all indebted to each other and we all stand on each other’s shoulders.”
Hudnut was referring to his predecessor, Richard Lugar, who sheparded Uni-Gov into existence, and Stephen Goldsmith, who followed him into office in 1992 and stressed public-private partnerships, to be succeeded by Bart Peterson, who built Lucas Oil Stadium and then handed off the mayor’s office to Greg Ballard who spearheaded the $250,000 fundraising campaign to commission and create the sculpture by artists Jeff Varilla and Anna Koh Varilla of Chicago.
Hudnut bet $77.5 million that if Indianapolis could turn a warehouse district near the Indiana Convention Center into a domed stadium, the NFL or Major League Baseball or another major sport that wasn’t auto racing would locate in the heart of the Hoosier Homeland.
“Mayors tend to do some gutsy things,” said Mayor Ballard at the unveiling ceremony. “Some are risk adverse, some are gutsy, but I am here to tell you that the gutsiest thing I ever knew of was building a stadium without a football team.
“Holy cow,” exclaimed Ballard, “but it worked.”
The crowd laughed as Hudnut, by Ballard’s side, made the sign of the cross befitting the former Presbyterian minister.
“It was a risk, lets put it that way,” said Hudnut later, “but, by the same token, no risk, no reward.”
Hudnut said one of his successors told him he wouldn’t have had the political courage to take the same gamble.
“So I gave the green light going ahead, not to build something for the NFL, but to expand the convention center.”
During his 16 years as mayor, Hudnut led the way in committing $4 billion in downtown development.
The Colts arrived in 1984. Indianapolis hosted the Pan American Games in 1987. Work on the $300 million Circle Centre was begun. OneAmerica Tower went up and $157 million was spent on sports venues launching Indianapolis’ claim as the Amateur Sports Capitol which was climaxed years later with the relocation of the NCAA headquarters and the hosting of several collegiate championships. The city’s convention business exploded at the twice-more expanded convention center.
And there was a Super Bowl in 2012.
“The growth has only continued and we wouldn’t be here on an NFL Sunday if not made for some gutsy decisions made back in the ’80s,” said Dave Arland, Hudnut’s former press secretary who recalled the best advice the mayor ever gave his staff.
“The biggest room in the house is the room for improvement. No matter how much progress we made way back in the Hudnut years, there was still an opportunity to do more, still an opportunity to grow even more and that is still true today.”
“When you look at his example you see how important it is to talk to everybody in the city,” said Ballard who sought the advice of all his predecessors when he took office in 2008. “All the demographics. All the neighborhoods. Get out and talk to the people.”
Hudnut is a published author of five books, a director of the National League of Cities and consultant for the Bose Public Affairs Group.
The unveiling of his sculpture comes as Marion County republicans are casting about for a candidate to fill Ballard’s office now that the current mayor has announced that two terms are enough.
Would Hudnut seek another chance to, “Womp those democrats”?
“Oh my, no,” said the four-term former city boss. “I’m out of politics now.”
Despite his two-decade absence from the campaign trail, Hudnut still showed the wit that won him local office after serving a term in Congress.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am this is a recognition ceremony,” said the 82-year-old ex-mayor, “and not a memorial service.”