“I don’t know why you don’t take me downtown,
like you got anywhere better to be.”
Lady Antebellum, “Downtown”
Last week, Indianapolis Downtown Inc. rolled out its vision for the future. Called “Velocity,” the 60-page plan was billed in one news account as a “multiyear effort to strengthen neighborhoods, improve amenities and attract new businesses and residents.”
As a former marketing/PR director for IDI, a former downtown resident and business owner, and current downtown worker bee, I want to be first on my feet shouting, “Bravo!”
But a funny thing happened on the way to my standing O.
You see, sometime in the past few days, weeks or months, a slew of somebodies got shot or stabbed or otherwise offed in Indianapolis. And the rash of dead bodies made news around the nation.
So my son Zach, who grew up in downtown Indianapolis, Forest Hills, Fishers and suburban Fort Wayne—and who now lives in New York City—sent me a telling text.
“Your city requires Kevlar to walk around in now. Who would have guessed that Brooklyn is safer?” Zach said.
Crime isn’t the only thing that doesn’t pay in Indianapolis.
For years, I stood in my former downtown and Forest Hills neighborhoods, chatting with young couples who had tykes and toddlers. Time and again, they expressed anxiety over when (rarely “if”) they’d have to leave the neighborhood as the young ones approached school age. Eventually, I saw moving vans pack them up and move them out.
Empty-nesters we seemed able to keep. With a few brave exceptions, families with children eventually coveted Carmel or Zionsville or some other suburb or exurb with exemplary educational options.
Then, there’s misguided social meddling, such as the effort to ban gay marriage and domestic partnerships in the state’s constitution. Such measures threaten to dissuade the very millennial generation that IDI’s business and residential push aims to attract.
Thus, while we’re striving to push one pedal to the metal in the interest of “velocity,” the other is on a brake called crime, education and discrimination.
Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut, whose vision, determination and public/private partnerships set the stage for modern-day downtown Indianapolis, once said, “You can’t be a suburb of nothing.”
But the converse is also true. You can’t be the cream-puff center of a rotten egg.
Much has been made in recent weeks of a Livability.com “top-10 list” ranking downtown Indianapolis as the best downtown in America.
Nice publicity. But here’s the rub.
When I went to the Livability.com website to learn more, I also found a list of the 100 best places to live in the United States.
In a ranking based on economics, health care, housing, social/civic capital (read: crime, voter participation, partaking in community activities), education, amenities, demographics and infrastructure, Indianapolis didn’t make the list at all. In fact, no Indiana community made the list. Not one.
If our state and its communities are not regarded for livability, how can the island known as downtown Indianapolis thrive, and, if it doesn’t, how can downtown lift the rest of the city and state all by its lonesome?
On the IDI website, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard says, “All neighborhoods are important, but when it comes to driving the economy of our surrounding region and this great state, and funding programs and resources for all neighborhoods, keeping Downtown Indianapolis healthy is imperative.”
This notion is reinforced by an Indiana University Public Policy Institute study showing downtown Indianapolis’ impact on jobs, tax revenue and the economy statewide.
But while downtown matters, and while the bells and whistles of Velocity— stronger neighborhoods, public rest rooms, better street lighting, improved transit, more parks, free wi-fi, a pedestrian bridge to IUPUI, additional bikeways, et al.—are appealing, any additional investments in downtown must be complemented by regional action and increased investment in all that surrounds downtown, especially education, crime prevention and welcoming (not discriminatory) social policies.
Twenty years ago, when I worked for IDI, our biggest struggle was getting people over their mental hurdle about driving “all the way downtown” (a phrase I came to despise in a place where that trip takes 20 minutes).
Now, if all the ballyhoo is accurate, people want not only to visit downtown, but also to live there.
But just as trickle-down economics was a bust at boosting jobs and incomes nationwide, expecting downtown Indianapolis to lift everything around it is naïve.
If current and potential downtown residents fear they’ll be shot, or that their children can’t get a decent education, or that the community and state are less than livable and welcoming, they’ll move on and move out.
In short, we can no longer invest solely from the inside out.•
Hetrick is a writer, public relations consultant and visiting professor of public relations for the IU School of Journalism at IUPUI. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.