Anderson officials hoping Colts’ return provides big boost for hurting city

By Michael Marot, AP
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Colts may give new training camp host needed boost

ANDERSON, Ind. — At 83, Carl Erskine is making the biggest comeback of his life.

He’s now the de facto ambassador for his hometown.

The former Dodgers pitcher, who returned to Anderson after retiring in 1959, is tapping the connections he built during his career as a local businessman to help the struggling city. He ditched his long-held disdain for Yankees fans to form a bond with Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, a relationship that helped Anderson score its biggest coup in decades — getting the Colts back for training camp.

“We’re downsizing, the automotive industry has kind of dried up, but the Colts coming back is a piece of the puzzle,” Erskine said. “It’s not the saving grace, but it is a positive piece.”

City residents can’t remember the last time they heard such promising news.

Unemployment in the Anderson metropolitan area was 11.6 percent in June, higher than state and national averages. The city that once had the highest per-capita income in Indiana, had its own professional basketball team and gained national attention for its 9,000-seat high school gym is now struggling to survive.

Abandoned businesses and vacant homes can be found throughout the city. The Guide taillight factory, once one of Anderson’s largest employers, has been razed, and the 27,000 high-paying automotive jobs that made up a centurylong love affair with the auto industry are a distant memory.

In their place are entry-level jobs in the hotel, food service and retail industries. There aren’t enough of those to help undo the damage.

Residents are leaving the city, which expects the 2010 Census to show the fourth population drop since 1970. The city’s two high schools are being consolidated into one, and local officials continue to debate whether to close the landmark gym, the Wigwam, to save money.

Those who remain struggle to stay afloat. Nearly 15 percent of Madison County residents — and 21.4 percent of children under 18 — lived in poverty in 2008.

“Jobs are next to impossible to find,” said Anna Sykes, a 24-year-old hotel worker who moved to Anderson when she was 2. “People with college educations are going to McDonald’s to work because that’s the only place they can get a job.”

Colts center Jeff Saturday has seen the plight himself.

He works with Anderson’s fire rescue house mission, a charity that provides temporary housing for families who lost houses in fires. The mayor’s brother, Skip Ockomon, a firefighter, helped start the organization after two children died in New Year’s Eve fire two years ago.

Saturday thinks teammates and coaches can identify with what Anderson and its citizens have endured.

“I’d say 99 percent of all football players come from the lower or middle class, so these are our families, these are our neighbors, this is what we all were raised around,” Saturday said. “I play a kids game and get paid well for it. But this is where we were raised.”

It’s those blue-collar roots and working-class teams, like the Colts, that Anderson embraces with such vigor.

Signs are strewn all along the five-mile stretch of State Road 9, leading from Interstate 69 to Anderson University, the Colts’ home for the next two weeks. Hoteliers and restaurateurs hope the projections of 40,000 visitors for training camp will hold up and that those people spend money in town.

And just maybe those company executives looking to relocate — and hire workers — will realize the city that lost the Colts, General Motors, Delphi and Guide over the past 11 years is changing.

“The morale part of getting the Colts here is huge,” Mayor Kris Ockomon said. “This city was really in dire need of that. It’s taken the morale to a whole different level.”

Fixing things will obviously take more than a 2½-week training camp. City officials must find the kinds of jobs that existed here before the automotive companies walked away.

Colts owner Jim Irsay promised Monday to find some way to help Anderson, where the Colts trained from 1984 to 1998.

“Driving up, I was thinking about the economy here,” Irsay said during the team’s first training camp practice. “Being back is a real positive for this community. You can feel a real spirit in town. When you drive by things and you see they’re shut down, it really gets to you. But there’s a lot of people here with a lot of fight.”

Anderson hopes to use the Colts to its advantage, like Indianapolis did a quarter-century ago.

Before the Colts arrived in 1984, Indianapolis was nicknamed Indiana No Place. Getting an NFL team and the ascension of the Pacers in the late ’80s and ’90s gave the city a major-league image that brought in big conventions, the NCAA and other national and international championship events.

Mayor Ockomon is looking for a similar boost.

There are already signs of a rebound. Nestle has opened a sprawling plant on the south side of the city, and Ockomon is trying to draw other businesses. Residents grasp at rumors that Indiana native and two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart plans to buy the grass field where the Guide plant once stood and turn it into a dirt track.

But the Colts’ return may be the biggest help of all.

“I think the numbers will be good, and the exposure is a huge thing for Anderson,” Ockomon said.

That the Colts moved back to Anderson is a vote of confidence in the city’s future, Erskine said.

“The Colts are smart,” Erskine said. “They look at a variety of things, but they have to look first at what’s good for them, and that’s a great compliment for Anderson. You can’t buy that.”

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