INDIANAPOLIS — William H. Hudnut III, the former Indianapolis mayor credited with revitalizing the city’s downtown after years of decline, died early Sunday, according to a family spokesman. He was 84.
Hudnut, the city’s longest serving mayor, died in hospice care in Maryland following a lengthy illness, said former aide and family spokesman Dave Arland.
When Hudnut was first elected mayor in 1975, Indianapolis was a rust belt city that had been hollowed out by white suburban flight and the decline of the city’s manufacturing base.
Downtown Indianapolis had become so desolate that men armed with shotguns hunted pigeons on Sundays among empty buildings and a trash-strewn canal. Author and native son Kurt Vonnegut Jr. described the city in 1970 as a place where “it was no easy thing to be an optimist” and the passage of time was marked by “the 500-mile speedway race, and then 364 days of miniature golf.”
Enter Hudnut, a former minister who over the course of 16 years laid the groundwork his predecessors have since built upon, turning Indianapolis into a hub for conventions and sporting events.
The city’s downtown now boasts hotels, restaurants, theaters, a 3-mile canal walk and boutique apartments. A modern convention center has been built along with an enclosed NFL football stadium and an NBA basketball arena. Construction cranes hover above the city.
“The vision I have for Indianapolis is a city that is both economically competitive and compassionate toward urban and human problems,” Hudnut said during his final term in office. “To make the city more livable involves more than just creating beautiful spaces and buildings. It’s more than a solid economic foundation and more than good jobs. It’s embracing future change. It’s dealing with tough human issues that touch the compassionate side in all of us.”
Hudnut spearheaded construction of the “Hoosier Dome” football stadium in 1982 with no guarantees that an NFL team would relocate there and then persuaded the Baltimore Colts to move to Indianapolis in 1984 when construction was completed. He was mayor when Indianapolis hosted the 1987 Pan American Games.
Colts owner Jim Irsay said Sunday that Hudnut was “instrumental” in bringing the team to the city.
“I will always remember the smile on his face when he walked across the floor of the Hoosier Dome to announce the arrival of the Indianapolis Colts to this great city,” Irsay said in a statement.
In 2015, Hudnut was one of several former mayors who penned a public letter amid uproar over a religious objections law signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. The law created a legal defense for business owners and employees with religious objections to serving or accommodating gay people.
Hudnut and other mayors said the law threatened to undo efforts made since 1967 to “build an inclusive, caring and hospitable city.” Pence and lawmakers later approved changes to the law.
David Frick, a former deputy mayor under Hudnut, told the Indianapolis Business Journal that the Republican was inclusive and a “consensus builder” and wasn’t afraid to sit down with Democrats and labor unions.
“History will judge him for what he did in bringing the community together to tackle the revitalization of downtown,” said Frick, who served as deputy mayor in the late 1970s. “Politicians these days tend to retreat to their core supporters. He was always looking for input from different parts of the community.”
Current Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, said Hudnut deserved credit for turning “’India-NO-place’ into ‘India-SHOW-place.”’
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1932, Hudnut was a minister at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis before he entered politics, winning one term in Congress in 1972 as a Republican before he was defeated in 1974.
After his final term as mayor, which lasted until the end of 1991, Hudnut relocated to Chicago, and later the Washington, D.C., area. He was elected mayor of Chevy Chase, Maryland, serving from 2004 to 2006.
Hudnut had been in poor health for over a year, receiving treatment for cancer while also suffering from heart failure, Arland said.
A statue of Hudnut sitting on a bench was erected in downtown Indianapolis in 2014.
He is survived by his wife, Beverly, and four children.