A swampy property at the southeast corner of state roads 37 and 32 in Noblesville had been a development dead end for years
when Chris Hamm left his job as the city’s economic development director in March 2007.
Hamm’s first order of business after leaving: Find a way to build a Target-anchored shopping center on the 60-acre property
as a launching pad for a new development consulting firm he had founded with Rex Dillinger, a former city council president
and mayoral candidate.
The firm, Northstar Land Entitlement and Development Services, delivered in a big way. It won Hometown Development LLC approvals
to mitigate a large wetland and flood plain. It got the state’s blessing for a stoplight on S.R. 37 unusually close to another
light. And it got the city to pitch in $7 million for infrastructure, including storm sewers to dry out the property.
For about six months of work, the firm landed a payday believed to be several hundred thousand dollars — a healthy bump
the $70,000 salary Hamm had earned while working for the city.
But the quick turnaround from city official to high-paid land-use lobbyist also raises questions for some critics of revolving-door
government. Hamm and Dillinger incorporated their firm a month before Hamm left the city. Hamm dealt with the Target developers
in his capacity as a city official before he left and began representing them.
And Hamm, 35, didn’t leave government entirely when he fled for the private sector: He won a seat on the Noblesville school
board in May, and was appointed in March to serve on a board that updates the city’s comprehensive plan, a document his developer
clients no doubt would like to influence.
Dillinger, 52, had his own ties to developers while he served as a Republican member of the Noblesville City Council. After
voting for the controversial 680-acre Noble West development in 2003, he went to work as a "development consultant"
owner, locally based Maefield Development.
"It’s ironic that the new City Hall has a revolving door," said Kurt Meyer, a real estate agent with F.C. Tucker
Co. in Noblesville
who once chronicled the city’s political scene for the Noblesville Daily Times. "[Hamm]
walked out a city employee and walked
back in the next day lobbying his friends, colleagues and former employees."
Hamm served for six years as the city’s economic development director and six years before that as a long-range and senior
planner. He led the development of the city’s strategy and a master plan for the Noblesville Corporate Campus, and he helped
shepherd entitlement applications for Saxony and Hamilton Town Center.
He said he’s doing virtually the same work now, still with a focus on serving the community and advocating for appropriate
"I have a different boss, but I have the same moral center," Hamm said. "As economic development director,
I worked hard to
streamline development processes for good development, to reduce red tape for good projects. What I do today is no different
Northstar has posted a sterling record for its clients: The city hasn’t turned down any of its 12 rezoning applications, including
one seven-acre commercial project that was denied four years ago with essentially the same plans.
Hamm said it all comes down to experience and market knowledge — competitive advantages developers are seeking.
But some developers say privately that Hamm and Dillinger have been throwing their weight around, leaving the strong impression
that without hiring them on as consultants, development proposals in Noblesville are less likely to succeed.
Hamm strongly denies the charge.
"We don’t strong-arm people," he said. "Obviously, we believe we have a proven track record."
Past clients IBJ spoke with said it’s hard to argue with the firm’s results.
"Knowing that Chris Hamm was once the development director, he knows how the system and the process works," said
vice president of investments for Minnesota-based Meritex Enterprises Inc., which has won approval to build seven office/industrial
buildings on 52 acres in Noblesville.
Dillinger, Hamm’s partner, said the firm looks out for the city and county as much as it does for its clients. And ultimately,
projects are judged not on connections but on quality, he said.
"If someone tried to do something that’s not good for the city or county, we’ve turned some of them down," said
brother of longtime Hamilton County Commissioner Steve Dillinger. "We live here. We’ve lived here all our lives."
Noblesville does not require a cooling-off period before city employees can go to work for private companies that do business
with the city.
That’s not unusual; most local governments do not have their own ethics procedures, particularly limits on the "revolving
door," said Ed Feigenbaum, a former member of the Noblesville Planning Commission who publishes Indiana Legislative Insight.
However, state employees in a position to give business to outside firms must wait at least a year before going to work for
one of those firms.
While some states, including Massachusetts, have imposed local-government ethics rules, Indiana has left it up to local officials,
"I’m not sure a one-size approach would be appropriate," he said. "You want to avoid any kind of appearance
or conflict of interest, but there’s a significant difference between the ability to influence in a large municipality like
Indianapolis versus a small town where everyone would know the individual."
Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear doesn’t have a problem with the Northstar arrangement; he wasn’t surprised when Hamm followed
a long line of government employees to the private sector.
He compared it to coaching your son in sports: You expect and demand more in part to guard against perceptions of favoritism.
Northstar clients get as much or more scrutiny than any other development applicant, he said.
"We’ve told them no, as we have others, or had them change things," Ditslear said. "I’m not sure they are any
than any other development representative."
For Hometown Development of Noblesville, the firm worked a miracle.
For 20 years, development on its site had gone nowhere. Now, a Super Target is planned for the property. The project, dubbed
Conner Point, still is a go thanks in large part to Northstar, said Charlie Spartz, who heads Hometown Development, which
has since agreed to sell the project to another developer Spartz would not name.
"[Northstar] was a no-brainer hire for us," he said. "The site would not have been built out without their
Hamm said it came down to a history of working with developers and an intricate knowledge of how to get projects done, including
incentive deals worth $25 million for Saxony and $20 million for Hamilton Town Center.
That experience is one reason he’s serving a one-year term on the city’s Benchmark Steering Committee, a group charged in
part with tracking and amending the town’s comprehensive plan.
"I think the master plan needs someone who understands how the process works," said Hamm, who is married with three
sons. "No one would question my integrity."
One of the goals of the plan is to protect Noblesville’s "small-town atmosphere" — quite an irony if
ask Meyer, the veteran
Noblesville real estate broker.
"We gasp and hold our mouths at the people in Washington, D.C.," he said, referring to all the cronyism and influence
"But the people here are doing the same things."