Ex-Noblesville official paved way for project after resigning post

December 22, 2008
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 from 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" for the 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."

Conflicting interests?

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 development.

"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 than that."

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 Richard Eichhorn, 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 Dillinger, brother of longtime Hamilton County Commissioner Steve Dillinger. "We live here. We've lived here all our lives."

Perfectly legal

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, Feigenbaum said.

"I'm not sure a one-size approach would be appropriate," he said. "You want to avoid any kind of appearance of impropriety 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 more influential than any other development representative."

Getting results

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 help."

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 young 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 you 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 peddling. "But the people here are doing the same things."
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