IBJOpinion

MARCUS: Kokomo works to advance economy

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Morton Marcus

What do you do when you have little discretionary money and enormous challenges? You might follow the example being set by Mayor Greg Goodnight in Kokomo.

Yes, Kokomo, the city named for a Miami chieftain, is known nationally through a song by the Beach Boys (which referred to the former name of a Caribbean island) and panned statewide for the string of traffic lights on the infamous Kokomo Bypass.

Kokomo enjoyed being the place with the highest average wages in Indiana, but recently has ranked behind only Elkhart in distress from the recession. As a center of production for Chrysler Corp. and Delphi Corp. (both based in Michigan), Kokomo has shared the glitter and the tarnish of the American automobile industry.

Like every other Hoosier mayor, Goodnight fights the battle of the budget. In response to the disastrous financing policies of the General Assembly, he reduced city employment and trimmed services. To do this, he closed the city’s day care center, shifted ambulance service from the fire department to the hospitals, and requires homeowners to move their trash cans to one side of the street for pickup.

The mayor’s opponents probably fantasize that this last measure will be revoked when the first sweet old lady is run down on a dark, icy winter morning while struggling with her mammoth garbage receptacle. Normally, her daughter would have moved the can, but without the city day care center, the grandchild must be taken to a more distant facility. The tragedy will be complete if the old woman would have survived but for the elimination of the city’s ambulance service.      

Goodnight understands that Kokomo’s economic problem is not the dominance of Chrysler and Delphi and the lack of diversification in the economic base. The central problem is that Howard County (of which Kokomo has 55 percent of the population), does not retain the earnings of its best-paid workers. Twenty percent of the work force lives outside Howard County; this 20 percent earns 30 percent of the income generated in the county.

Kokomo and Howard County must attract more well-paid workers to live there. This will improve the retail and service options in Kokomo. Generally, higher-income families have high expectations of schools. Their housing will add to the tax base as their skills add to the innovative capabilities of the community.

Goodnight is opening eyes with his program to make downtown Kokomo more friendly and attractive. “The City of Firsts” (as Kokomo likes to call itself) is being transformed into The City of Color. Flowers bloom in baskets hung from decorative light poles. New planting areas have been created at street corners. Modern sculptures catch the attention of drivers and pedestrians. Many traffic lights have been replaced by stop signs, which facilitate movement for autos and walkers while discouraging high-speed adventures through town. Some one-way streets are now two-way passages, slowing traffic so motorists can see the many changes being made to local shops.

City parks are getting new equipment and bike/walking trails are being constructed. Efforts to coordinate and promote the arts are being advanced. Even the headquarters building of the Kokomo Fire Department is undergoing a thorough exterior cleaning, removing the grime of three decades.

These are major achievements for a city on a strict financial diet.

Contrast this modest program with the massive, expensive construction being done by the state that will have little benefit for Kokomo. U.S. 31 runs along the east side of Kokomo. Its many traffic lights form a major obstacle to vehicles moving between South Bend and Indianapolis. Instead of fixing the problem, the state Department of Transportation chose to build a new four-lane highway farther east of Kokomo. This invites more suburban sprawl and a relocation of retail trade from the old bypass.

Fixing the bypass would have been more expensive, but modernizing U.S .31 on its current alignment might have been a wiser investment with more benefits to Kokomo than a new bypass.•

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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  1. By Mr. Lee's own admission, he basically ran pro-bono ads on the billboard. Paying advertisers didn't want ads on a controversial, ugly billboard that turned off customers. At least one of Mr. Lee's free advertisers dropped out early because they found that Mr. Lee's advertising was having negative impact. So Mr. Lee is disingenous to say the city now owes him for lost revenue. Mr. Lee quickly realized his monstrosity had a dim future and is trying to get the city to bail him out. And that's why the billboard came down so quickly.

  2. Merchants Square is back. The small strip center to the south of 116th is 100% leased, McAlister’s is doing well in the outlot building. The former O’Charleys is leased but is going through permitting with the State and the town of Carmel. Mac Grill is closing all of their Indy locations (not just Merchants) and this will allow for a new restaurant concept to backfill both of their locations. As for the north side of 116th a new dinner movie theater and brewery is under construction to fill most of the vacancy left by Hobby Lobby and Old Navy.

  3. Yes it does have an ethics commission which enforce the law which prohibits 12 specific items. google it

  4. Thanks for reading and replying. If you want to see the differentiation for research, speaking and consulting, check out the spreadsheet I linked to at the bottom of the post; it is broken out exactly that way. I can only include so much detail in a blog post before it becomes something other than a blog post.

  5. 1. There is no allegation of corruption, Marty, to imply otherwise if false. 2. Is the "State Rule" a law? I suspect not. 3. Is Mr. Woodruff obligated via an employment agreement (contractual obligation) to not work with the engineering firm? 4. In many states a right to earn a living will trump non-competes and other contractual obligations, does Mr. Woodruff's personal right to earn a living trump any contractual obligations that might or might not be out there. 5. Lawyers in state government routinely go work for law firms they were formally working with in their regulatory actions. You can see a steady stream to firms like B&D from state government. It would be interesting for IBJ to do a review of current lawyers and find out how their past decisions affected the law firms clients. Since there is a buffer between regulated company and the regulator working for a law firm technically is not in violation of ethics but you have to wonder if decisions were made in favor of certain firms and quid pro quo jobs resulted. Start with the DOI in this review. Very interesting.

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