The implosion of the once-powerful Carmel Redevelopment Commission doesn’t look good in the headlines, but the turmoil has a silver lining. It should end a period in Carmel’s history when fast physical transformation of the town seemed to be leadership’s only concern.
The new Carmel, where mixed-use, urban developments have replaced strip malls and wide-open spaces, is undeniably a huge leap forward for an edge city that has long sought to emerge from Indianapolis’ shadow. Unfortunately, careful bookkeeping and transparent government weren’t part of the makeover.
As reported in IBJ last week, a recent State Board of Accounts audit of the redevelopment commission turned up a variety of problems, from sloppy record-keeping to not collecting more than $835,000 in payments due the agency. The commission’s staff shrank from six to two earlier this year and finally to zero when former Executive Director Les Olds and a top lieutenant resigned in mid-October.
The reining in of the commission began last year, when the Carmel City Council agreed to refinance $184 million of its debt in exchange for gaining control over commission spending and staffing. The commission had borrowed $240 million to support high-profile projects such as City Center, its flagship Center for the Performing Arts and the Arts & Design District before nearly falling into the red last year when Tax Increment Financing district revenue fell short of covering expenses.
Even its use of the TIF revenue is under scrutiny. State auditors took the commission to task for using TIF proceeds to pay commission operating expenses, a use the state says is prohibited. Carmel disputes that interpretation of the law.
What isn’t in dispute is the need to step back and give the commission a fresh start.
Mayor James Brainard, who launched Carmel’s renaissance shortly after taking office in 1996, told IBJ he’d wait until next year to hire a new commission executive director. The interim period, Brainard said, is a good time to reevaluate how the commission works.
We couldn’t agree more.
Brainard’s critics have gone after him over the years for his single-minded devotion to putting Carmel on the map with expensive, high-profile redevelopment projects. The redevelopment commission, tasked with bringing Brainard’s vision to life, became an easy target as it racked up debt and made big decisions without public input.
That’s a shame, because Carmel’s transformation deserves more applause than catcalls. Turning a car-centric American suburb into a walkable, dense urban community took leadership and risk, and it has largely succeeded.
All Carmel needs now is a well-run, transparent redevelopment commission to build on those gains. We’re confident that will emerge.•
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