Indianapolis in crisis mode to keep geek, gay visitors

Indiana governor Mike Pence. (

Indiana governor Mike Pence. (

Fiona Ortiz, Reuters

, Last Updated: 4:13 PM ET

The rainbow flag, a symbol of gay rights, flies prominently on the Visit Indy website and Indiana's Republican Governor Mike Pence personally phoned the head of a Seattle gaming company that gathers 56,000 geeks in the heartland each year.

These are just some of the signs that Indianapolis, a corn belt city of 850,000 with a $4.4 billion tourism industry, has gone into full-on damage control to make sure its growing convention business is not harmed by a national uproar over a religious bill that Pence signed into law last week.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act - which to some meant religious freedom and to others a license to discriminate - was being modified on Thursday by Indiana lawmakers to clarify that businesses cannot deny service to gays and lesbians.

With tens of thousands of basketball fans set to attend the NCAA Final Four men's college tournament in Indianapolis this weekend - and Indy's iconic car-racing industry also expressing concerns over the law - tourism leaders are eager for a quick fix.

"We have been working around the clock in crisis mode because the perception of Indy being unwelcoming has been everywhere," said Chris Gahl, vice president of communications at Visit Indy, the marketing arm for the state's capital and largest city.

Gahl said the group is "working feverishly" on the phone with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union and with Christian church Disciples of Christ to make sure they don't carry through with plans to cancel meetings in the city, which has built new hotels and expanded its convention center as tourism booms.

But the biggest convention of all is Gen Con, a Seattle-based gamer group that says it has a $50 million annual impact on Indianapolis.

During Gen Con's annual meet, attendees gather at tables and computer screens for round-the-clock role-playing games like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons, trading card games, video and computer games, miniatures and board games.

"We've been on the phone with them every day, reassuring them we are doing everything we can as a city to oppose the bill and ensure their executives and attendees they will be welcome," said Gahl.

"A significant portion of Gen Con attendees identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and we are reading that some members of our community feel unsafe traveling to Indiana," Gen Con Chief Executive Adrian Swartout wrote in an open letter to attendees, after Governor Pence phoned her on Monday.

Swartout said Gen Con was halting plans for expanding its yearly convention until the RFRA was amended, which Pence promised to do on Tuesday.

Lawmakers were expected to amend the law on Thursday and send it back to Pence's desk.


The day before Pence signed the RFRA last week, Visit Indy moved the rainbow flag up to the top of its website, said Gahl. The entity has been actively marketing to the gay community for five years, he said.

Tourism in Indianapolis grew to $4.4 billion in the past 8 years from $3.4 billion, and added 10,000 new jobs, for a total of 65,000 full-time jobs. Some 26 million visitors came to the city last year, up from 22 million in 2006, according to Visit Indy.

Global corporations such as pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. were among businesses that pressured Pence to modify or repeal the law. Backlash from businesses also prompted Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to back down on a similar bill this week.