Programming The Circle Is A Monumental Task

Monumental Circle is more accessible than people think for quirky events like my roller-skating dance party. But when it comes to programming the space in an organized way, we haven’t quite found our bearings.
There’s a place in Central Park (New York, not Carmel) where a large group of “dance skaters” boogie in a circle on nice summer days. You see hippies, old men, ballroom partners, street performers, parents and their safety-padded kids, rhythmic people, clumsy dorks. In costumes or cargo pants, denim cutoffs or sequined gloves. Butt-wigglers, line-dancers, one-footers, and figure-eighters. On YouTube, one guy weaves through the crowd hoisting an American flag with a basketball spinning on the end of the pole. It’s the land of the free-spirited.

The spectacle can amuse for hours—all walks of life, gliding and grooving to a DJ, literally dancing as if no one is watching. It’s one of my favorite things to do in New York. While looking up the event schedule for a recent trip, it hit me: Why couldn’t we have public dance-skating in Indianapolis?

Disco-skating seems right in line with what Indy is all about right now. It’s active, quirky, playful, all-ages, and wholesome. Best of all, we have a natural rink, right in the middle of the city, that everyone agrees is currently underused: Monument Circle.

That’s where I figured my idea would bite the dust harder than a dad at his daughter’s skating party. Never mind the bricks—you could lay down a smooth surface. But surely they don’t let just anyone hold an event on our most sacred ground, right?

Actually, yes. They do.

In fact, they—the city; Downtown Indy, Inc.; and other stakeholders who want Monument Circle to become more vibrant—encourage it. “We don’t turn down events,” says DeAnn Milliken, who handles event permit requests for the city. “In the 13 years I’ve been here, we have denied two applications.”

Milliken’s department, Business and Neighborhood Services, happily helps organizers pull the right permits and hire police officers to block streets for even the smallest events. Four years ago, a Meridian-Kessler artist named Ruth Stoner found out the Circle rents for as little as $75 per day, a fraction of the price of party barns around here. She launched the Monument Circle Art Fair all on her own. Even bricked over, the Circle is fertile ground for growing ideas.

The access surprised me.

“We call it the people’s plaza,” says Bob Schultz, senior vice president of marketing and events for Downtown Indy, one of the primary organizations working to improve the city center. The Circle is our most important gathering area, and its brain trust wants to see more reasons to gather. But one of the things holding the Circle back is as surprising as its accessibility.

No one is officially responsible for programming it.

For now, and for what could be a decade, Downtown Indy and other stakeholders try to make the most of the space they have and the ideas people bring to them.

How can that be? Hasn’t “What could Monument Circle become?” been our favorite civic parlor game for nearly a decade?

It started in 2010, when Indianapolis hosted a meeting of CEOs for Cities. Out-of-town leaders were underwhelmed by the Circle. Beautiful. The geographic and cultural heart of the city. But where is the bustle? Where can you buy a beer?

In 2011, the Monument Circle Idea Competition sought ideas from around the world for ways to fulfill the plaza’s potential as a vital, energetic gathering space. A jury including former Indianapolis Museum of Art director Max Anderson chose a winner, a quiet reconfiguration of the plaza into a cross shape, over bolder visions. But the design was not expected to be implemented. The purpose was to generate excitement for reimagining the Circle. Velocity, a crowd-sourced master plan from Downtown Indy in 2013, came up with more options. The Department of Public Works held brainstorming meetings in 2013 and 2014 to dream big about the space.

There is no shortage of ideas. Sidewalk dining and retail are the low-hanging fruit. Parades throughout the holidays have come up. Some people have suggested turning the Circle into a lazy river, beach, or pop-up drive-in theater.

For all the dreaming, though, little has changed. The closest we got was when Mayor Greg Ballard announced temporarily shutting off the Circle to traffic in 2010, as an experiment. The opposition was so fierce, you would have thought he wanted to replace Victory with a statue of Tom Brady. The closure didn’t happen.

One roadblock is the Circle’s infrastructure—it needs work. The roundabout hasn’t had major improvements since the 1970s. DPW wants to replace the bricks, fix the road base and sidewalks, and update water and sewer systems. The Circle could use fiber optics, audio equipment, and tent tie-downs for events. (It could also benefit just from better lighting, a lesson learned when American Ninja Warrior brought its production muscle to the Circle and showed how beautiful those buildings can be with proper illumination.) The reconstruction—not including any design or utility enhancements—would cost $25 to $30 million. DPW has applied for a couple of federal transportation grants, but it has been promised money only to fix up Market Street east of the Circle in 2020. That project will divert focus from the Circle reconstruction for years to come.

Some events have succeeded despite the aging infrastructure. Spark, an offbeat art festival, woke up one quadrant of the Circle in 2015. For a few months in the summer and fall, Big Car Collaborative operated free daily activities and “parklets” with cheerful cafe tables. Passersby stopped for ping-pong and chess (often with strangers), played an oversized version of Jenga, listened to live music, and embraced eccentric fun like the therapeutic Listening Booth. More than 45,000 people played Spark’s games, an encouraging sign for the future.

There is no shortage of ideas. Parades throughout the holidays have come up. Some people have suggested turning the Circle into a lazy river, beach, or pop-up drive-in theater.

But Spark didn’t return to the Circle the next two years (except for the parklets and occasional evening events), relocating to City Market instead with a shorter schedule and smaller slate of activities. The reason: Spark was expensive. It operated on $400,000—half of it a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was then matched by the city and the Central Indiana Community Foundation. Spark probably won’t return. “People don’t want to give you a grant, usually, to keep on doing what you’re already doing,” says Big Car CEO Jim Walker.

So for now, and for what could easily be a decade, Downtown Indy, Visit Indy, and other stakeholders try to make the most of the space they have and the ideas people bring them. “We look for affordable opportunities for activation,” says Downtown Indy president Sherry Seiwert. One of the best examples of those doable events is HandleBar Hot Laps, taking place for the third year on May 18. Corporate teams sign up to race a pedal pub around the bricks. It has been a hit, doubling in participation.

Downtown Indy developed HandleBar Hot Laps. Cassie Stockamp of the Athenaeum Foundation created Monumental Yoga, a June event that draws 4,000 people and 80 vendors to the streets. Yelp! has thrown white-attire-only dinner parties on the bricks. But we could use a lot more of this.
That’s where a Monument Circle manager would come in.

While groups like Downtown Indy currently field ideas for events on the Circle, a programming manager with a small budget could proactively recruit them. In addition to encouraging arts organizations to bring ideas, this person could create some with sponsors and help facilitate events by acting as a liaison on site. Regular small-scale activities like Spark’s would be doable, Walker says, and would turn the Circle into a place where you could always count on something happening. The first order of business would be to make an online calendar of events, currently nonexistent.

Downtown Indy wants the job—it already manages Georgia Street, along with events at the Canal—and might ask the city for it next year. Walker thinks businesses on the Circle could step up to fund such a role. “Someone like Salesforce. That’s their front yard,” he says. “Google has a campus. Apple has a campus. What if the Circle was the campus for the businesses downtown with world headquarters on or near it? Have a budget of under $100,000 and a couple people who help make stuff happen. That would be a big marketing opportunity for these companies, too.”

Wherever the money comes from, there’s a particularly strong argument for hiring a Monument Circle manager now, as another season of events gets underway: This is the first full summer since the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was designated a National Historic Landmark last year. While that complicates events on the steps (concerts and other commercial activity can no longer take place inside the concrete pillars), it’s a reminder of how central the entire space is—or at least should be—to our city.

There’s a particularly strong argument for hiring a Monument Circle manager now: This is the first full summer since the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Truthfully, I wasn’t particularly serious about the idea of roller disco around the bricks when it came to me—I can’t even throw a dinner party, much less a public skatefest. But I think it perfectly fits Indy’s current vibe, and knowing events like that are so urgently needed, maybe it’s worth revisiting. Other than laying down a suitable surface and applying for a permit at least 60 days in advance (between $75 and $268, depending on expected attendance), all it would involve is hiring a few police officers to close off some streets (around $45 per hour), possibly having a fire inspection ($100), securing a music and entertainment permit ($200), renting speakers and trash receptacles, and getting liability insurance. “It’s not that hard,” Walker says.

Until we make progress on hiring someone to program the Circle, ad hoc events like that will be the only ones happening there. Anyone want to roll with the idea? I promise to come watch.