Sunday, March 25th, 2007
Have you ever wondered by some places boom and other places stagnate? What makes one place hot, the next not? Sometimes it seems rather arbitrary. Consider the collar counties of Indianapolis. Hamilton, Hendricks, Johnson, Boone, and Hancock are all booming areas. Distribution and other industries set up shop in shiny new industrial parks alone the interstates radiating out from I-465. Housing and retail developments spout. Etc.
But conspicuously not in the growth picture are Shelby County, and to a lesser extent Morgan County. Shelby County is the clear anomaly here. It is located in a growing metro region but has a profile much closer to a traditional stagnant rural county. Little industry has located there. This despite having the best interstate access of any of the collar counties. I-74 cuts through the length of the county diagonally and there are seven interchanges in Shelby County. There is also an I-65 interchange in southwestern Shelby County. Yet there has been little development. One thing Gov. Daniels failed to do in trying to sell his Indiana Commerce Connector plan was to explain why if the existing interstate wasn’t doing anything for Shelby County, another one would.
People talk about infrastructure as a catalyst for growth. And indeed it is a necessary factor. But not a sufficient one. Obviously something is lacking in Shelby County. What could it be? One thing I can’t help but notice is that Shelby County was a hotbed of anti-ICC activism. A capacity crowd of 1,500 attended a recent meeting on the road – a huge turnout in a county with only 44,000 people in it. Morgan County was the site of other huge rallies against the road.
It occurs to me that perhaps the reason Shelby County hasn’t seen economic development is simply that the people of the county don’t want it. Their values and opinions are not consistent with economic growth. That sounds like a put-down, but it isn’t. Growth isn’t necessarily progress. A preference for growth and change are merely values that people hold. There is nothing inherently right about them. As Americans we typically see these as positives, but that’s pretty much a matter of opinion.
The challenge is to reconcile a desire for things not to change with a desire for the good things in life, such as access to modern technology, and good jobs for your children. A friend of mine recently went to a corporate brainstorming session on how to improve employee loyalty. The top three items that the group agreed needed attention were pay, work-life balance, and advancement opportunities. My friend and I had a good laugh at that. When someone invents a high paying job with lots of upside where you don’t have to work very hard, send me an application. Similarly, people in vast tracts of Indiana expect to be able to maintain their traditional way of life, but still have the modern economy, the government, etc. to treat them to all the good things of today. But it just doesn’t work that way. There are always tradeoffs. And what that has meant in anti-change Indiana is a state where a good chunk of the real estate is bleeding population and jobs. Farmers don’t want anyone messing with their land – or their gigantic subsidies paid for by urbanites of course – and expect that they can just make the whole world stop to match their way of life.
The citizens of Shelby County are free to reject the Indiana Commerce Connector. It is their choice. And indeed they’ve made it. But they need to understand that other people can make choices too. And those choices often involve locating businesses in more progressive communities, moving factories to China, or just plain leaving town for good after high school graduation. There’s a price to be paid for maintaining these traditional ways. The people of Shelby County might find that price worth paying, but I hope they are making these decisions with their eyes open.
As an Urbanophile perhaps it is easy to lecture rural people. I should point out that I grew up in a rural area, on a country road four miles outside a town of 29 people. I still love the country. And I should also point out that the same is true of cities too. I asked why Birmingham stagnated while Atlanta became the capital of the New South. It similarly comes down to choices people make. A lot of the cities I cover here talk a good game of wanting to be world class. But all too often their decision making doesn’t line up with that lofty rhetoric. There are tradeoffs in cities just like in rural areas. When the vast bulk of what these cities do isn’t in fact world class, then they can’t expect that the sum product at the end will be world class. It is that simple.
Atlanta is a case in point. It’s easy to say, well, Atlanta was in the south and centrally located. Their emergence as a major city was as much good fortune as anything. Part of that is true. But Wall Street is always able to spin a plausible tale about why the market did what it did that day which made it sound inevitable too. But we all know predicting that market in advance is a much harder affair.
The brass ring is still there to be grabbed. There is room to be had in the club of major cities. Any of the cities I cover here has the potential to stand up and be counted among their number. No, none of these cities will be a Boston or LA. But they could find their own type of greatness, just as Atlanta has. To do it those requires making those tradeoffs. Lots of people think Atlanta, with its notorious, though over-rated, gridlock, is the ultimate horror show of out of control sprawl. But that’s one of the tradeoffs they had to make to get where they wanted to go. To think that any city can get there without some pain and sacrifice is not realistic. These cities might decide, like Shelby County, that it’s a price they aren’t willing to pay. That’s ok. But these decisions should be made consciously, not be default, with an awareness of what is being decided. Unfortunately, that seldom seems to be the case.