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Many here thought that building the $80 million downtown Hoosier Dome without a firm contract for a team to play in it was a rash gamble. But Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut III had long insisted publicly that the dome's main purpose was to strengthen the city's standing as a convention center. Any sports use beyond that would be a bonus.

The city's coup this spring in capturing that bonus with the sign-up of the National Football League's Baltimore Colts quieted much of the earlier criticism and reinforced the point that vision and hard work often precede victory.

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Civic leaders here have long been clear on what they want their city to become. They want it to grow into a major medical, convention, and sports (both amateur and professional) capital. To back up their goals, they cleared the way and garnered funds to build such facilities as the dome, a downtown basketball arena, and a large track-and-field stadium, Olympic-size swimming pool, and bike-racing arena at the combined Indiana-Purdue University campus.

The mayor of this city of the Indianapolis-500 motor speedway says, ''We set ourselves some sights, and we're trying to go for them.'' He sees the hosting of a Super Bowl and a bid for the Olympic Games as distinct possibilities.

Indianapolis has had it easier than many cities in the industrial belt. It has relied less heavily on manufacturing than many, and its loss of population and jobs have cut less deeply. The city's partial merger with many surrounding suburbs in a ''uni-gov'' arrangement in 1970, which strengthened its tax base, and the steady generosity of local benefactors such as the Eli Lilly Foundation, which contributed $25 million to the dome project, also set it apart.

Nationally, Indianapolis is considered one of the prime examples of a city making progress through close public-private partnerships.

''It's the new civics, and it's really the key to the salvation of the city, '' said Mayor Hudnut, a former National League of Cities president, interviewed in his office. ''Government can't do it all - and neither can the private sector.''

As examples of how that partnership has worked here, the mayor cites the American United Life Insurance Company's decision to build a 38-story office building - now the state's tallest - downtown rather than in the suburbs. As its part of the bargain, the city relocated several sewers and steam pipes, closed off some streets, and offered a tax abatement. ''I call it 'creative leveraging' - it goes both ways.''

It was a financial package of dollars and tax credits from various government sources that he says managed to keep the local International Harvester plant going when it was weighing a shutdown. And when one local developer wanted a traffic light that the city felt it could not afford, ''we went halves with him, '' Hudnut says.

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Mayor Hudnut admits that federal cuts have hurt his city, but says cities have become too prone to hold out the ''tin cup'' to Washington for every need.

''We're learning that there's a lot (of economic progress) that can be generated by cooperation with the private sector,'' he says. ''I personally don't feel we have to weep and wail and gnash our teeth every time some program is cut in Washington. We've got to rein in deficit spending everywhere.''

Taxpayers, too, he says, must lower their expectations or pay the freight.

''We can't just give everybody everything they want, and people can't expect government to do that,'' says this former Republican congressman and Presbyterian minister. ''People are going to have to realize that the cost of delivering services goes up like everything else.''

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