Carmel GOP mayoral hopefuls differ on debt, housing

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Jim Brainard is the only mayor many Carmel residents have ever known. Now, with Brainard preparing to step aside after 28 years in office, a cast of candidates is looking to take his place.

Sue Finkam, Fred Glynn and Kevin “Woody” Rider are in the final stretch of their campaigns to win the Republican Party primary election on May 2.

The winner will likely face Democrat Miles Nelson in the November general election. No other Democrats have filed to run.

Nelson is serving his first term on the Carmel City Council after being elected in 2019 to represent the West District. He is the first Democrat to ever serve on the council and the first from his party to run for mayor since 2007.

Nelson is president of Zionsville-based executive search firm AOI Today.

The winner in the general election on Nov. 7 will take office Jan. 1.

Carmel’s population has increased from about 30,000 residents in 1995 when Brainard first ran for mayor to more than 100,000 people today.

During that time, Brainard oversaw the redevelopment of areas that have become some of Carmel’s most prominent, including the Arts & Design District, City Center and Midtown, and he heavily used tax-increment financing to achieve his development goals.

Finkam, Glynn and Rider shared their opinions with IBJ about some of the major issues in Carmel ahead of the Republican primary.

Those issues included the future of redevelopment, ways the city can improve communication between officials and residents, and the city’s $1.5 billion debt, which is the result of decades of development projects.

The three Republican candidates for mayor of Carmel participated in a March 28 debate sponsored by the Current newspaper. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

The candidates

Finkam, a 16-year resident, is serving her third term on the Carmel City Council, where she represents the city’s Northeast District. She was council president from 2017 to 2021 and currently serves on the Hamilton County Solid Waste Board.

Finkam has worked 30 years in marketing and human resources administration. She is principal of Carmel-based FireStarter LLC, a marketing and public relations firm she founded in 2010.

“I’ve worked really hard to build my executive portfolio and sought out experiences that would add to my ability to be an executive leader,” Finkam said. “I really want to take those experiences and that education and apply it to city government.”

Glynn has lived in Carmel 20 years and works as a loan officer. He faced Brainard in the 2019 mayoral primary and gave him one of his toughest challenges. Brainard survived by defeating Glynn with 55.8% of the vote to 44.2%.

Glynn served two terms on the Hamilton County Council, where he was known as a fiscal conservative. He stepped down last year to run for the House District 32 seat in the Indiana House of Representatives, a race he lost in a tight election to Democrat Victoria Garcia Wilburn.

“I think that I am offering a good alternative vision to what the other two are offering, and really all three, even the Democrat,” Glynn said. “They’re all auditioning to be the next Jim Brainard and do exactly the same [things Brainard did], just with different styles. I think I at least offer an alternative to that.”

Rider, a 40-year Carmel resident, is a four-term member of the Carmel City Council. He serves as an at-large member and has worked on the Carmel Plan Commission the past 12 years.

Rider also owns two Carmel restaurants: Woody’s Library Restaurant and Divvy. He recruited a slate of six city council candidates to run in the primary.

“My thought is, Carmel has given me my life; it’s my time to give back to Carmel,” Rider said. “I’ve worked closely with the mayor. I think I’m the most qualified to follow a 28-year mayor. It’s going to be a huge transition with not just a new mayor after 28 years, but our city council is going to have six new faces.”

More communication

Finkam said Carmel’s leaders should be more engaged with residents than they are now. One of her first objectives in office would be to conduct a citywide survey and create a community-driven city strategy.

She said the three most important issues in Carmel are crime prevention, quality of life and economic development. Finkam would direct the Carmel Redevelopment Commission to incentivize more for-sale housing (including condos) than apartments.

“I think that all the apartments we built, especially in the center part of the city, have been a welcome addition to a thriving and vibrant community,” Finkam said. “But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and I feel like we’ve suddenly come up on a saturation point, and people want more for-sale living here.”

Finkam added that she would like to create a city university that would invite tech and life sciences companies and other major employers to train future workers.

She also envisions a city that embraces its international community and would look to build an international center with an emphasis on food, faith, art and economic development.

Finkam said she has plans to create a separate economic development department and invest in workforce development.

Regarding criticism by some that 16% of the city’s budget is earmarked to pay for debt, Finkam said there is no “impending doom.”

“I often hear, ‘When the chickens come home to roost, we will have this massive debt blowup.’ That’s not true,” Finkam said. “However, things can happen outside of our control that would reduce our revenue, and so we need to anticipate the potential of something like that happening and make sure we have adequate cash flows as a backup.”

A different path

Glynn would look to attract people age 20 to 34 to move to Carmel and start small businesses. It would be an alternative, he said, to providing incentives to companies to move to the city.

“You try to attract the right people instead of attracting the right businesses,” he said. “When you attract the right people, then the businesses just come. So it’s a different outlook, and that’s what I’m trying to offer.”

Glynn said he would a make a pivot in the type of development and policy priorities of the Brainard era, in part by diversifying Carmel’s housing options. He said he’d place an emphasis on building more for-sale housing rather than apartments, a reaction to what he hears from Carmel residents.

“They’re just over the development,” he said. “It’s a lot more people saying that than were saying that four years ago when I ran before. They’re sick of the same types of development—one project after another.”

He would look to increase dining and entertainment options downtown and keep neighborhoods intact while not focusing so much on redevelopment. Brainard’s tenure as mayor has included the conversion of some traditional neighborhoods into modern, upscale, mixed-use developments.

Glynn suggested Birmingham, Michigan, in suburban Detroit as an example of a city Carmel could look to as an alternate way of planning development with less density and more focus on the downtown core.

Residents “were told in Carmel that everything we do is great and there’s no other alternative, but we really sometimes need to look inward and then look in other communities to see how they’re doing it and not think that we’re immune from taking constructive criticism,” Glynn said.

He contended the city’s debt is a major concern and that the city cannot continue “kicking the can down the road.”

“We need to be honest with our citizens,” Glynn said. “S&P downgraded the debt [in 2017], and they basically said when they downgraded the debt that it could be downgraded again in the future if this type of thing continues.”

‘Throwing darts’

Rider would aim to continue leading Carmel on its current path while improving communication with residents and involving them sooner in planning major development projects.

He said that, just like Carmel was an early adopter of roundabouts, the city needs to find its next “first” to keep it ahead of other communities.

“We have created the situations that exist and affect Carmel. We’re going to continue to do that,” Rider said. “I’m not going to get off in a 90-degree direction. I’ve been a big part of the last 16 years. We’re going to continue that.”

While Brainard had nearly a blank canvas for development when he took office in 1996, Rider said Carmel’s next mayor will have a dartboard, meaning the city has specific sites that need to be targeted. He said Carmel officials can be choosy about what they want to do next because developers want to work in the city.

“I’m going to be throwing darts. It’s going to be very focused. We’re going to look for the future needs of Carmel,” he said.

Rider added that he would put a focus on public safety in Carmel, which was ranked the safest midsize city in the United States in 2021 by New York-based AdvisorSmith.

Carmel residents “love the community that we have. They love the sense of community that they have. They want to remain safe,” Rider said “Crime is trying to sneak from Indianapolis to Carmel. We’re going to be very proactive with that. That’s going to be a major concentration.”

He would also look to increase the amount of affordable senior housing in the city.

Rider dismissed the idea that Carmel’s debt is a problem and said the issue has been used as a political football to go after Brainard in the past few elections.

“I look at our debt and spending as an investment in our taxpayers,” he said. “Most of the long-term debt was taken on to build infrastructure. The proactive way that we do our infrastructure is the reason we have over 150 corporate headquarters. That’s why they moved here.”•

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2 thoughts on “Carmel GOP mayoral hopefuls differ on debt, housing

  1. There is very little that is “proactive” about building car infrastructure that doesn’t get federal maintenance funding, especially in a low-tax state like Indiana.

    In the next couple decades, it will come time to rebuild and replace Carmel’s “good infrastructure”. It is an expense that all cities face eventually, and it often exceeds the original cost of construction. The problem is, Carmel will likely still have a very high debt burden.

    How does an Indiana city with a very high debt burden and low density pay to upkeep its disproportionate amount of road infrastructure? The answer has traditionally been to annex land until you can’t annex anymore. Carmel is out of room to annex.

    Carmel has to get much more dense or it will face the music. Many other suburban parts of Central Indiana already have or are just starting to. Carmel is just a couple decades behind on the same timeline, but with more debt.

  2. Carmel needs a better vision. 28 years of a vision included many mistakes. They dont need 28 years of the same which Finkum & Rider are offering. Glynn’s views are refreshing and bring youth & vigor to a stale Carmel. The same things don’t necessarily work forever. Vote Glynn for Mayor of Carmel !!!!

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