Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk about the habits that lead to success.
Bill Taft weighed a few careers while growing up in Michigan City and attending Cedarville University in Ohio. He looked at becoming an architect (too much math) and pursuing foreign relations (not enamored with the political culture of Washington, D.C.). But over many summers spent rehabbing homes, he got hooked on the idea of reviving old structures. That led to his current career in neighborhood redevelopment that demands a passel of talents, from the mathematical to the political.
“It requires a sense of optimism, because frankly the things we’re taking on most people think you can’t accomplish,” said Taft, executive director of the Indianapolis office of New York City-based Local Initiatives Support Corp.
“Otherwise, you just need to be a generalist,” Taft said. “You need to know something about real estate development, finance, fundraising, non-profit management, policy, transportation—and just how government works and how to interface with government, but also being able to communicate effectively with the for-profit sector.”
Much of Taft’s expertise came in handy while securing a new home for LISC and several other local not-for-profits. Even better, the move helped preserve a slice of Indianapolis history.
Work now is wrapping up on The Platform, otherwise known as the west wing of downtown’s City Market. Indianapolis officials had considered demolishing the wing, which was becoming too expensive to maintain due to a dwindling tenant base and the cost of operation. Taft pitched a plan in which, for nearly the same price as demolition, the city could renovate the space for use by LISC and other neighborhood-centric not-for-profits.
“We then would lease the building and cover the operating costs. So, for the same amount of money, the city still would have an asset, but not the operating costs,” Taft said.
In the video at top, Taft provides a tour of the space as construction crews finish up about $1 million in renovation, mechanical and structural work. The open-floor first level already is in use by the Indy Winters Farmers Market, which will feature dozens of vendors every Saturday through April 27.
LISC now inhabits a portion of the second level, which looks out over the market’s plaza and the City-County Building across Market Street. The position next to one of downtown’s most popular lunch spots and just a few steps from the epicenter of local government gives LISC and its brethren tenants a much higher profile.
“I don’t expect LISC to ever be a household name, and it doesn’t need to be,” Taft said. “But we do want to make sure that people who are active in the world of nonprofits or in government or in the civic-corporate leadership community understand the mission that we’re supporting. So they need to know about us, too.”
In a nutshell, LISC helps community development groups improve their neighborhoods—including homes, schools and business. And it packs an impressive tool belt.
LISC links neighborhood groups with other organizations that can help with finances or some other aspect of development. It tries to influence public policy to make that work easier. It provides grants, loans and technical assistance.
The group also helps neighborhoods create long-term strategies for revitalization. “It starts with helping create a ‘quality of life’ plan, and that’s a vision of how the neighborhood can become what it would like to be, but in very practical terms that are driven by community-based groups,” Taft said. “These plans are measurable, with results lined up for each year, and who’s responsible to be the lead and who are the partners.”
The quality of life plan for Indianapolis’ near eastside neighborhood became the germ of the Super Bowl Near Eastside Legacy Project, considered one of the most important aspects of the city’s bid for Super Bowl XLVI.
The Legacy Project has sparked more than $150 million in publicly and privately funded improvements to the area, including new or renovated housing, new businesses and community services, and vastly improved infrastructure along East 10th Street. In the video directly below, Taft discusses the project and its reach.
Taft arrived in Indianapolis in 1991, when he became president of Southeast Neighborhood Development Inc., which would invest more than $30 million in the Greater Fountain Square Area under Taft’s leadership. (He joined LISC in 2005.) He and his wife, Joanna, purchased a fixer-upper in the Herron-Morton Place neighborhood. In the video at bottom, Taft describes how the experience of rehabbing the house informed his professional work and taught a lesson in the value of compromise.