Risk pays off as Cultural Trail celebrates opening

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The Indianapolis Cultural Trail celebrates its official grand opening Friday and Saturday with music, parades and other events.

The landscaped trail is eight miles long, connecting downtown's five cultural districts. There are benches, bike racks and public art along the way. Groundbreaking was in 2008 with the trail built section-by-section.

The trail was the brainchild of Brian Payne, who was on the city's cultural commission when he came up with the idea.

Payne said it was the result of three things: finding a way to link the cultural districts (which were disconnected), narrowing downtown streets which he felt were too wide and fast, and his introduction to the Monon Trail.

"It was a spring day in April of 2001 and there were, like, 10,000 people on the Monon having the time of their life and I thought, 'What about an urban Monon?'," Payne recalls, adding he started "talking to everyone I knew about it."

Initially, he thought everyone loved the idea. He said it wasn't until later they told him they were actually thinking "this is never going to happen, this guy's crazy."

But persistence paid off. It wasn't long before he found some donors willing to help fund it. At first, the trail was to cost $6 million, but then it became "more ambitious."

The final cost?

$63 million with the federal government providing $35.5 million in transportation funds and $27.5 million from private donors.

"One person did not make it happen. It took a lot of generous philanthropists and a lot of city leaders buying into a radical idea," Payne said.

The trail has changed how people see and get around downtown.

"We have this unfair reputation that we're not willing to take risks, we're not innovative or creative, we're this sleepy second-tier city. I don't believe any of that," Payne said.

While several see the Cultural Trail as a "game changer," it follows many others. Eyewitness News took an informal survey, calling 20 business, civic and political leaders in Indianapolis.

We asked them what they thought were the three top three things that helped transform or define downtown, things other cities don't have.

Getting the most votes? White River State Park, a hub for museums, the zoo, Victory Field and outdoor concerts. In second place, redevelopment of the downtown canal with its sidewalks, green space and, now, restaurants. The redevelopment of Mass Avenue came in third for bringing more restaurants, shops and theater downtown.

Payne wasn't surprised.

"When I started trail planning, I remember only two restaurants on Mass existed in 2001," he said.

Also mentioned several times? Building Circle Centre Mall and making Indianapolis the amateur sports capital of the world.

Payne offered another (which three other people mentioned, too.)

"We built an NFL stadium (the Hoosier Dome) without a team, so these are big risks," he said.

The American Legion Mall, buying the land for the IUPUI campus and "going for the Super Bowl" were also cited.

As for the Cultural Trail, Payne said, "we took a big risk, we pulled it off and in doing so we innovated," creating an attraction he hopes people will enjoy for many years and many miles to come.