John McDonald: What communities can learn from Fishers’ growth

Keywords Forefront / Opinion
  • Comments
  • Print

What does the ideal community look like? For some people, it might be shade trees and sidewalks that grant entry to parks and shops within walking distance of their front door. For others, it might be attributes such as hiking trails, waterfront access or a walkable and bikeable commute to work. Whatever the preference, all of us have an idealized picture in our heads of what our surroundings should look like.

The problem is, in communities such as Fishers and many others just like it, “ideal” isn’t that simple. Achieving any ideal sense of place requires understanding and compromise, and the first step is to keep longtime residents informed of proposed developments and how such changes will affect them. The next step requires creating ways to attract new residents and blend “the old and the new” into a vibrant overall community. This means letting established residents, as well as new ones, see for themselves that growth and change are beneficial.

Unfortunately in Fishers, as the Nickel Plate District’s expansion continues, the naysayers tend to increase. I’ve heard claims that all this new development is ruining “how things used to be.” But the fact is, the Nickel Plate rail line hasn’t been heavily used since Fishers became a city in 2015. And even before then, the rail line had increasingly become a hazard for pedestrians as Fishers began to evolve into an innovation and technology hub and more people concentrated near downtown.

With the old and the new now in mind, we have to focus on making the switch from living in the past to continually moving forward. This means bidding farewell to the Nickel Plate tracks and taking creative measures to connect our community in ways that promote and sustain economic growth. That’s what makes the Nickel Plate Trail and its master plan so important. Newcomers move to Fishers because they like what’s happening downtown and in surrounding areas.

As for the naysayers, they’ll always persist, but a consensus among longtime residents lets us know what the city is doing is working. It’s even more evident when you look at the steady population growth and the roster of awards ranging from “Best Places to Live” and “Green Community of the Year” to TechPoint’s first ever “Rising Tech City.”

All told, Mayor Scott Fadness and the city’s public- and private-sector leaders have given Indiana a blueprint for communities looking to shed the image of being a sleepy small town. The blueprint is one that shows them the steps they can take to become a prosperous, engaging and connected community instead.

Going forward, Fishers’ core vision remains to incorporate placemaking that will spur transformation and innovation. Subsequently, this will help the city evolve even more, adapt to new generations of residents, and continue to foster an entrepreneurial spirit that’s vital to the community.

I think it’s important for all Indiana residents to take a look at their own communities, towns and cities and ask themselves why it’s important to play an active role in promoting new development. Not only will it benefit Indiana’s economic development as a whole, but it also increases connections to our neighbors and friends while cementing plans for upcoming business growth and prosperity.

Don’t we all want to live in that idealized community we envision?•


McDonald is the CEO of Fishers-based ClearObject and chairman of the Indiana Technology and Innovation Policy Committee. Send comments to

Click here for more Forefront columns.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

4 thoughts on “John McDonald: What communities can learn from Fishers’ growth

  1. I guess I am a naysayer. My ideal community is one that is connected through transportation choice. My ideal community is one where city leaders listen to my voice and take my concerns into consideration. My ideal community is where where I am not taxed for an amenity that I may never use. My ideal community is one where we find solutions to traffic congestion, not increase traffic congestion. If that is what makes me a naysayer, then I am proud to be a naysayer.

  2. @John McDonald – You say that, “Achieving any ideal sense of place requires understanding and compromise…” My question is simple: How did our elected officials show “understanding and compromise” in this trail proposal?

    From many residents’ perspective, the trail-only option was presented to the public as fait accompli. There was no genuine discussion or consideration of residents’ desires in a public forum, in order to reach a compromise solution. There was no data presented supporting the elected officials’ decision (but if you look at previous data collected by the City of Fishers in 2013, nearly 60% of Fishers respondents in a poll wanted rail access to Indy). It seems obvious that there is an ulterior motive driving this trail conversion – especially when a TRUE compromise (rail-with-trail) exists. Not only would that satisfy the desires of both camps of people, but it would be the most financially prudent solution to avoid a situation where the trail has to be torn up at some point in the future to reactive rail service.

    On top of this all, Fishers, Noblesville, and Indianapolis have acknowledged their responsibility to preserve the corridor for future rail reactivation while concurrently planning to obstruct the future ability of rail on the corridor by encouraging INDOT to lower the interchanges at I-465/I-69 and I-65/I-70 to realize cost savings that can be put into the trail. This DIRECTLY controverts their responsibilities to the Federal Government as trail sponsors and risks the integrity of the corridor (even as a trail).

    When an elected official in the City of Fishers asked me, “You know why the Nickel Plate trail is happening, don’t you?” I knew immediately that my suspicions of ulterior motives were confirmed. This elected official went on to say that local business interests submit a “Top 10” list each year, and a linear trail showed up on the top of that list in recent years. “At that point, the Mayor was committed to the trail regardless of whether it was his personal inclination to pursue it.”

    The Nickel Plate Trail project is simply local elected officials pandering to business interests: which is why I’m not at all surprised that an executive at Fishers-based business has written this column.

    Look, I don’t disagree that trails can be a wonderful amenities for a communities. But trails ARE NOT one-size fits all solutions. And in this particular case, a MUCH more logical solution that would provide recreation AND mobility opportunities for the future (rail-with-trail), was summarily dismissed and ignored (until a feasibility study was released nearly two years after the public first suggested that solution…going into an election season).

    Let me be clear, us “naysayers” are much more concerned about a government turning its back to its people than we are about a rail vs. trail debate. This is just one of many manifestations of recent that confirm the suspicions of our elected officials to those of us paying attention.