Economic Recovery and Opinion and Economy and Viewpoint and Government & Economic Development

Central Indiana could lead economic recovery

April 27, 2009
Every day, we get more bad economic news. While I'm not smart enough to know when the global economy will rebound or how strong the rebound will be, I do believe central Indiana and the Midwest are well-positioned to lead the recovery.

Why?

Well, I can't believe I'm making this argument, but our low housing prices and our adherence to tradition—things I once thought were part of our problem—now may be part of the solution. Let me explain.

First, our low housing prices and lack of appreciation have kept us from incurring as much equity-related debt as many other parts of the nation. Consequently, we should have money to spend quickly.

Second, our adherence to tradition has meant many Midwesterners have continued to take a long-term view—weighing investments over years, rather than by quarter. That means we haven't made the mistakes and taken the risks that have more dramatically affected those taking a quarterly view.

Of course, back when we began establishing those traditions, the Midwest was known for its innovation, including such inventors as the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, Philo Farnsworth and C.J. Walker. And Midwestern factories became the nation's melting pot, assimilating hard-working immigrants and migrants who drove the Midwestern and national economy.

But at some point, we became reluctant to take chances and make mistakes, and maybe we became a bit less welcoming to the next wave of immigrants.

If we are to turn the lemons of the current economic situation into lemonade, and thereby help the Midwest re-establish its economic prominence, we need to adapt our traditional values to a changed social and economic environment.

We've already made some progress, as evidenced by innovation and productivity in the life sciences and advanced manufacturing. We should continue to support and build upon those clusters, as well as distribution and logistics, information technology and motorsports.

But we've got to do more if we want to reassert ourselves. Among the top priorities:

• We can recommit to existing neighborhoods. Doing so should hold down the cost of local government and improve our environment.

• When we do build new homes, the focus should be on building neighborhoods rather than subdivisions.

• We should acknowledge the automobile and the telephone and create more efficient and responsive state and local government. It doesn't matter where my government is—we can get from Indianapolis to Evansville in the same 3-1/2 hours it once required to get from the north side of Indianapolis to downtown. But it shouldn't take me five calls to find the government official who can address my concern.

• We should think green and build more efficient homes, protect our natural resources, and engineer and design amenities that enable us to compete with coastal and mountain states for the "creative class."

• We should embrace immigration and celebrate the diversity and creativity that each new wave of immigrants brings to a community.

• Which leads to mass transit. Our situation is embarrassing—a higher share of commuters in Des Moines uses mass transit than in Indianapolis. If we want visitors to know how great our region is, they must be able to visit it. And they shouldn't have to own or rent a car to do so.

• Finally, let's become more tolerant of innovators and risk-takers. If we are to succeed, we must not be afraid to fail. (Did the Wright Brothers get it right the first time?)

So at this critical juncture, we have two choices. We can complain and stay on the sidelines, or we can do what Midwesterners have always done: Roll up our sleeves and get to work making lemonade out of lemons. With a little hard work and luck, we might just lead the economic recovery.

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Klacik is a senior policy analyst for the Indiana University Center for Urban Policy and the Environment. Much of his research focuses on economic development, state and local taxation, affordable housing and neighborhood development.
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