VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Vibrant city can be built without oceans, mountains

May 23, 2005

In late April and early May, two things happened. The Legislature adjourned on time and Forbes magazine released its seventh annual list of the best (and worst) metro areas to develop businesses and careers.

Forbes based its ranking on business costs, living costs,

education levels of the work force, qualityof-life issues as well as job and income growth and migration patterns.

Indianapolis ranked 33rd out of 150 of the country's largest metro areas, and there's some good news in that number. If you check the list (www.Forbes.com), you will note that "winners" seem to be slightly isolated from other large cities.

In addition, they have either latched onto a branch of the new economy or already established themselves as major transportation centers. Sound slightly familiar? And like Indianapolis, most of the winners don't have nearby oceans or mountain ranges. (OK, Boise and Albuquerque have mountains in the background but Austin has...Dell.)

Back to the other thing that happened recently. As the sound and fury of the 2005 Legislature died down, Indiana had taken two giant leaps into a future of regional cooperation and planning.

First, the mere idea that all of the counties in central Indiana might be working together through a shared tax mechanism actually is more important than the final stadium/convention center funding formula.

Second, the Northwest Region now has the financial mechanism to take full economic advantage of its lakefront and its really big neighbor.

Regional planning is not a new idea. And it's not just about hospitals, highways, sewers, schools, stadiums or light-rail transit. It's about leadership-or the lack of leadership. Without visionary leadership, the potential new funding that each county gains for new projects might just result in more sprawl.

Google "regional planning" and you'll get an astounding number of Web sites about planning activities from every area of the nation. Browse through the sites, and you'll notice that the same words appear time and time again: controlled density, infrastructure alignment, framework for growth, plan to plan, environmental sensitivity, subdivision regulation, vision, historical precedents, bringing sprawl to a crawl, interconnected networks, greenways, gateways, identity, image, economy, real estate values and so on.

Read more closely and you'll see an important underlying theme. "While population may shift, well-planned regional growth is not a zero sum game." Then look back at Forbes' list of "winners" in this light. The main idea is that if business and the community grow in tandem, then residential location should matter less.

Indianapolis recently completed its 2020 plan. All communities in central Indiana should develop similar plans that can be integrated into one regional plan.

The regional plan, then, might encourage Carmel to invest in the proposed Symphony Hall. Or perhaps it might help Conner Prairie and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra find a new summer venue that has better traffic access and less impact on its neighbors.

Regional planning also will impact governmental leadership. Some day not too far in the future, the other eight counties in this region will need to employ some form of the unified government model. Mayors, county commissioners and county councilors need to remember what Marion County was like in 1972, with acres and acres of farmland where Castleton Mall and Pike High School now sit.

Now, back to the "winners" in that Forbes poll. Let's put down a score for Indy:

Slightly isolated from other large cities... Perfect! We have a clear identity.

Has latched onto a branch of the new economy... Sounds like the BioCrossroads Initiative to me. But we need to ratchet up the action and funding.

Major transportation center... Just wait until Interstate 69 is open to Evansville and FedEx lands the Airbus 380 in Indianapolis in a couple of years.

One more thing. The rankings prove that we can get by without a nearby ocean or mountain range. After all, we will have a new Indianapolis Airport in 2008 and, better yet, a vibrant region to come home to. I don't know about you, but I love to fly.

Don Altemeyer is a founding principal of BSA LifeStructures Inc., the city's largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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