Former Mayor William Hudnut will be remembered for many things, not the least of which was his oft-repeated warning about the dangers of neglecting Indianapolis’ core.
“We liked to say, ‘You can’t be a suburb of nothing,’” he recalled in his 1995 book “The Hudnut Years in Indianapolis, 1976-1991.” “We told people we did not want all the good development taking place outside the beltway and downtown becoming an empty hole; we wanted it to be like a good cookie, solid throughout.”
In large part because of the groundwork Hudnut laid as mayor, downtown today is thriving. But the shiny new apartment buildings rising in the Mile Square belie the reality that suburbanization is continuing to take a heavy toll on Marion County. That decline may well be the biggest challenge confronting our next mayor.
As IBJ’s Hayleigh Colombo reported last week, Center Township’s population dropped nearly 60 percent from 1960 to 2010, according to U.S. Census data, a decline that triggered a daunting erosion of the tax base.
And the challenges go deeper than sheer Census counts. Increasingly, middle- and upper-class families are opting to live in collar counties, rather than in areas like Washington Township, which used to attract many of the upwardly mobile families who now opt to buy homes in Carmel or Fishers.
The trend is playing out rapidly, with the percentage of Washington Township students qualifying for free or reduced lunch rising from 40 percent to 60 percent since 2006.
Shifts in tax policy are making the challenges even tougher. As a result of property-tax caps, the city has become more reliant on income-tax revenue, which Hoosiers pay in their county of residence, not where they work.
As Ball State University economist Michael Hicks told Colombo, “You have big manufacturers and all kinds of recreational businesses, but unless the people that work there live there, most of the economic impact is ephemeral.”
Fortunately, mayors who followed Hudnut didn’t stick their head in the sand. One of Mayor Bart Peterson’s signature accomplishments was Fall Creek Place, the revitalization of a run-down swath of homes northeast of downtown.
And Mayor Greg Ballard rolled out a litany of quality-of-life initiatives, including bike-path construction, aimed at making the city alluring to educated professionals. He also is getting the ball rolling on 16 Tech, an innovation district northwest of downtown that he hopes will become a haven for knowledge-economy jobs and highly educated residents. J.K. Wall details those plans in this week’s Focus section.
None of these efforts is a panacea. The next mayor must take even bolder steps.
The good news is urban living is back, as millennials and others embrace dense, walkable neighborhoods. Even places like Carmel are embracing the trend, recognizing the economics of building out a bustling residential-and-commercial district like City Center are far superior to extending roads and other infrastructure to more and more far-flung suburbs.
Fortunately, Indianapolis has an abundance of walkable neighborhoods waiting to be reclaimed. Mayoral candidates Joe Hogsett and Chuck Brewer have said all the right things about focusing on neighborhood revitalization. It’s time to turn the rhetoric into action. The future of the city depends on it.•
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