A former Chief of Staff for Indiana Governor Evan Bayh, Bart Peterson was born, raised, and educated in Indianapolis. The first Democrat elected mayor of Indianapolis in the post-Unigov era, his administration was notable for its advocacy of the arts, educational reform, and initiatives to create a biotech industry hub in the city.

Interior shot of four people with shovels pretending to dig in a raised bed of dirt. People are seated on a dais behind them.
Bart Peterson (second from left) at the ceremonial groundbreaking for Herron School of Art, 2002 Credit: Indiana University Indianapolis View Source

Peterson’s advocacy of charter schools made him unique nationally and within educational circles. In 2001, the Indianapolis Mayor’s office became the first in the country to authorize Charter Schools. This power helped the Mayor’s Office exercise some influence over education in the city, which was something that Peterson’s predecessors had sought for decades. This power did not come without controversy, but the progress in this realm led to the creation of the Mind Trust, a think tank advocating educational reform, in 2006, headed by David Harris. Charting this position endeared Peterson to school reformers on both sides of the aisle.

The administration’s advocacy for the creation of a biotech hub was the culmination of decades of work to help provide an identity for the city beyond its sports strategy. The initiative gained new momentum with the creation of Biocrossroads in 2002. This initiative helped to galvanize a number of businesses throughout the metropolitan area and set the stage for subsequent growth in health-related sectors.

A man stands behind a podium holding up a framed certificate. A woman is on his right, and the mayor is on his left.
Bart Peterson at the Westin Hotel for Rangeela Punjab, a celebration of Punjabi culture that features ethnic food and music, 2002 Credit: K.P. Singh, Indiana Historical Society View Source

The administration was also important in its advocacy of the arts. Early in the first term, the administration established six arts and Cultural Districts throughout the city. These designations helped bring coherent identity to subunits of the city, tapped into the existing arts community, and linked cultural development to capital development. The most visible accomplishment in this area was the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which broke ground in 2007 following a development campaign spearheaded by Central Indiana Community Foundation president Brian Payne. A collaboration among multiple entities, the trail revolutionized the downtown area when completed in 2013 by linking parts of the city that had previously lacked coherent connection.

Peterson notably helped further consolidate some city services as part of an initiative he called Indy Works. The major accomplishments were in merging the MARION COUNTY SHERIFF’s office with the Indianapolis Police Department and further consolidating some of the township fire departments and other units government provided on the township level. Reminiscent, on a smaller scale of Unigov, the consolidations created greater efficiencies in government but also faced significant political opposition from entrenched officeholders.

On the steps of Monument Circle, several rows of people, most holding American flags, stand behind a man at a podium.
Bart Peterson at the reception of Indiana Task Force 1 on Monument Circle, September 2001 Credit: Indiana University Indianapolis View Source

Other major accomplishments during the administration included the completion of Fall Creek Place, which became a model for urban housing redevelopment throughout the Midwest, securing funding for Lucas Oil Stadium (which was a move designed to keep the Indianapolis Colts in the city), and the first efforts toward envisioning regional transit initiatives.

Peterson also was mayor on September 11, 2001, which tested leadership throughout American localities. He made a special plea to members of the community not to blame any people of a particular faith. While urging this public unity, Peterson recognized that the terrorist attacks would fundamentally reshape the way that American cities were governed, with increased emphasis on public safety and its increased costs.

The Peterson Administration came to an unexpectedly abrupt end when dark horse Republican challenger Gregory Ballard upset the incumbent mayor during his quest for a third term in 2007. Much of the voter unrest hinged on unpopular property tax increases that had been implemented in 2007. As housing prices dropped, property taxes in parts of the city increased dramatically. This helped create an atmosphere for voter dissatisfaction, upon which Ballard ultimately capitalized. Peterson remained influential in the Indianapolis area, where he worked for Eli Lilly And Company before becoming president and CEO of christel house International in October 2018.

Revised March 2021

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