Sunday, January 4th, 2009
Beyond the obvious of climate and such, why is it that so few people choose to move to the Midwest, which continues to see very high levels of out-migration with comparatively little in-migration in most cases? You see, I’ve always been struck by an interesting point: when people move to Midwestern cities, they fall in love with them. I know a lot of people who have left Indianapolis for various reasons, but don’t know anyone who left cursing its name and saying how much they hated it. In fact, just the opposite is more likely. People are initially skeptical (“Indianapolis?”) but then are surprised how much they like it.
I’ll give one example: Dr. Ora Pescovitz is the CEO of Riley Hospital for Children. At a panel discussion a few months back talking about the huge progress she’s seen in Indy, she noted how she’d been dragged “kicking and screaming” there as a “trailing spouse” who did not find the city attractive “personally or professionally”. Now she feels totally different.
And where there is negativity, it is often interesting where it comes from. One person I know noted that there are two kinds of people in Indianapolis: those who love it and those who hate it. The people who love it often moved there from bigger cities – this person grew up in Manhattan – while almost all the haters were natives.
I won’t profess to say Indy is unique in this regard. The story of “skeptical coastal big city dwellers move to smaller Midwestern burg and fall in love” is all too common. I know people in Louisville, Cincinnati, etc. who all feel this way about where they landed.
Midwestern cities, and especially Indianapolis, have more discreet charms. Unlike with New York or San Francisco, they don’t hit you in the face with their very coolness on the cab ride in from the airport. You so often have to be in the know to find the goodness. And a lot of the great things about the city aren’t the same things that are great about those coastal cities. It requires a bit of discovery and understanding what you’ve gained as well as what you’ve lost.
There are two huge obstacles to boosting the number of people to choose to move to Indianapolis (and other Midwest cities).
1. Getting them to consider it in the first place.
2. Closing the deal once you get the audition.
Regarding point #2, I’ve got a jeremiad of biblical proportions saved up on this topic for another day. Let me just say for now that while people, especially those from smaller cities, who visit and spend their time in a carefully circumscribed area in the Wholesale District and maybe Broad Ripple might leave impressed, people from equal or bigger cities who leave those areas and see what the city really looks like are likely to be turned off if not repelled by the face the city shows the public. Indy is flat as a pancake. It doesn’t have the mountains or an ocean or perfect climate. It has to rely on its built environment to create a sense of place and positive impressions. Unfortunately, it fails in this regard. The city absolutely must figure out how to bring the great qualities it has more to the surface so that they are readily apparent to the casual visitor. One of the absolute imperatives for the city is to make step change improvements in its physical appearance and quality of public space. The current physical appearance of the city is like the smartest kid in the class showing up to the job interview in ripped jeans and a stained t-shirt. No matter how good you are, you’re not getting the job.
On point #1, I think newcomer Don Welsh, new head of the local CVB, summed it up perfectly: “Our product is better than our brand.”
The Midwest and its smaller cities suffer from huge brand image headwinds. Now, some of it is legitimate. The product that Indy and other places is selling is still not where it needs to be. On the other hand, it is way, way better than it used to be even 15 years ago and I don’t think that these places have gotten the cred they deserve for what they can pull off today. And what’s more, I think some of these places, and certainly Indy, are getting close to what could be a tipping point in terms of pushing the stone down the hill instead of up it. You absolutely can get a great meal, see an indie film, consume quality local artisinal products, see great art or a world class symphony performance, etc. This wasn’t always the case for many of these items. And the new amenities have not been purchased by sacrificing low costs and generally easy living.
The Midwest is often seen as a land of retrogrades, a see of white bread – and white skin – provincialism. A place stuck in the 1950’s. Polluting, non-creative, etc. Even where the brand image is neutral, why would anyone put a Midwest city on their list of places to live? Other than Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison, and Ann Arbor – and to a lesser extent places like Bloomington, IN – few places bring positive associations to mind when you say their names on the coasts.
Unfortunately, negative brand images, once acquired, are difficult to dispel. As with anything, people latch on to anecdotes that reinforce what they already think while tuning out or discounting those that don’t. For example, ask people what comes to mind when they think of Cincinnati, and you’ll get that Mark Twain quote, race riots, Mapplethorpe, Larry Flynt, and maybe WKRP. Baseball fans might remember the Big Red Machine. Other than that last entry, this is not an inspiring collection. And while there are some elements of truth in them, they don’t tell the whole story about what Cincinnati is today.
As often, let me focus on Indy here in looking at what to do, but I believe the lessons are absolutely applicable to other Midwest cities. Indy’s problem is that it is fighting something with nothing. You can’t fight a neutral to negative brand stigma with approaches that are themselves content free. Consider some of the things used to describe the city, its value proposition, and its aspiration:
- A great place to raise a family. As opposed to what, a terrible place to raise a family? Most cities I’ve been to claim to be a great place to raise a family, and with some degree of validity.
- Big city amenities with a high quality of life. Again, you and 25 other cities pitching the exact same thing.
- “So easy to do so much”. But what is it one would actually do?
- “Amazingly always new”.
- “A safe and liveable city”. Again, as opposed to what, unsafe and unliveable?
The problems with these is not that they are bad or even wrong. The problem is that they have no power to inspire. They don’t create any type of emotional connection or resonance with people. What’s more, the implicit message behind most of them is “We’re good enough, and that’s good enough.” They are incredibly modest ambitions. But that’s not good enough. It’s like I’ve said before:
Or perhaps to put it another way,
People follow jobs, but jobs also follow people. Any business making a location decision wants to know that there is a qualified labor force available. To change the game in the Indiana economy means making the place more attractive to the labor force of the 21st century.
I want to stress that there is no moral or ethical reason to try to set the bar higher. There’s actually a lot of charm and goodness in simple, modest ambitions. But to make that choice requires a rich awareness of the implications and consequences. It means your brand image around the country improves slowly at best. It means lagging in talent acquisition and in-migration. It means settling for economic growth below potential.
The Midwest suffers from a failure of ambition. I’m not talking about booster club society cheers about how great we are. I’m talking about ambition properly so-called. About understanding who you are, what your values are, where you stand, and where you want to be.
The fundamental problem with modest ambitions, as I said, is that they have no power to inspire. It takes a pretty cold and calculating person to create a purely rationalistic choice in favor of it, but that’s not how we are as human beings. The problem with recognizing this is that it often gets caught up in various debates about public policy. There’s a huge intellectual battle out there because what I will call the “Joel Kotkin School” and the “Richard Florida School”. Kotkin basically argues that economic growth is powered by traditional but unsexy items like low taxes, good government, and quality schools. Richard Florida, exponent of the Creative Class theory, says that it is more about high quality amenities and service levels needed to attract the new economy labor force.
But the Kotkin-Florida split is a false dichotomy. The fact is, they are both right. Kotkin is right that you really do need a “safe, liveable city”, with good schools, efficient and lean government, low taxes relative to the service levels purchased, and a pro-business regulatory environment. But this is just the ante. All you get for this is a seat at the table. It’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. If it were, many Midwestern cities, which offer a reasonable version of this already, would be up there with the southern and southwestern boomtowns. But they aren’t. The problem is that these items are like the “food and shelter” levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you don’t have them you’re screwed. If you do have them though, that doesn’t mean everything’s wonderful. Man does not live by bread alone.
Florida is right in that talent matters in the world we’re in. If you have a region with low educational attainment, and few people with in-demand skills for today’s industries, you aren’t going to get much economic growth, no matter how low your taxes or traffic congestion. Maybe you’ll get some branch plants and such, but even if you are successful, you’ll be nothing more than a shadow city, dependent on decision makers far away for your economic well-being. You certainly won’t have many innovative new businesses like Xylogenics. Unfortunately, Florida, likely due to his need to appeal to a popular audience, has reduced his thesis to a formula, and gives scant credence to economic drivers beyond his “three T’s”. Also, cities following his advice have tended to turn into tax and spend republics like New York and Chicago. Maybe a city like New York or San Francisco can get away with that, discounting their crushing taxation as “that’s life in the global city”, but Indianapolis can’t. (We’ll see how well a high tax, high spending approach holds up in those places in a post-bubble world).
I think there’s an opportunity out there for a city to stake out a claim to a third way between these two poles. A commenter in one of my threads noted that there is a gap in the market out there for a good government, reasonable tax, pro-business environment city that also brings the right kind of amenities to the table. I agree, and I think this is the territory Indianapolis needs to claim for itself. It needs the Kotkin side to have the good business climate and it needs the Florida side to inspire people to want to live there.
The question is, what is that inspirational vision the city should bring to the table? The Star just took Mayor Ballard to task for failing to articulate a vision. But I think this is wrong. Firstly, different leaders have different styles. Mayor Brainard in Carmel is clearly a more visionary type of leader. Mayor Ballard is more of a nuts and bolts guy. Cities need different leaders at different times, and if you ask me, Indianapolis still has some work to do on fixing the basics, unfortunately. I’ve said it before, but if Mayor Ballard does nothing but put Indianapolis back on a solid, sustainable financial and operational base, that would be a huge accomplishment. And it is difficult to blame the guy for not giving ideas when he’s got sharks circling ready to mock him for anything he does. As always, the cricket tournament and Chinatown ideas are trotted out. But both of those were great, creative ideas. (Read the postcript and I’ll tell you why).
The Star also mistakes projects and “legacies” for vision and brand. This switches the cart and horse. The problem is that there has been far too much focus on splashy grands projets at the expense of the rest of the city. This is why Monument Circle and the Wholesale District look great while much of the rest of the city looks very poor. But the mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Every place bricks up its Main St. Great cities understand that the average street is just as important. That’s where real liveability begins.
First you’ve got to define your vision and brand, then you undertake projects to support it. Again, one area where the city got this right in spades was the amateur sports strategy and vision, followed by the building of the facilities and other programs needed to implement it. Just implementing random projects doesn’t take you anywhere, particularly when they are the same things everyone else is doing.
What’s more, why blame Ballard for the lack of a vision? It’s been noted by many for a long time that the city lacks a strong sense of identity and has a weak brand. From the criticisms, you’d this this was a recent phenomenon. But the city has had many years to figure this out and hasn’t. There’s a good reason for that: it’s really, really hard.
Unlike a marketing campaign or a tag line, a true brand and vision is about what you are all about as a community, what your values are, and where you want to be. This isn’t something that can be imposed top down. It has to spring from the soil. While leaders – and not just the mayor – can articulate and give voice to the vision, they ultimately can’t create something where there is nothing there. Trying to, for example, position Indy as the next hip and trendy destination is likely to fail because that’s not what the city is all about. Rather, a true vision is an emergent property of the community.
The city has to figure out what its “brand promise” is. I put up an extensive posting about this previously that I won’t repeat here. The key is that the city has to find an inspirational vision for itself rooted in what it is and its own essential character. A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir. While I can’t offer the answer, let me share a few ideas again, and things I believe are areas ripe to include:
- The first is that ornery Hoosier attitude. We stood nearly alone on DST for how long? But repositioning that for the future makes what is conventionally seen as a weakness into a strength. In an era where cities are choosing either a Kotkin or Florida approach, Indy can stake out that third way, a unique and differentiated path for itself. When other cities are implementing the urban redevelopment dogma du jour, Indy will take an independent look and not be afraid to chart its own path.
- Indy is solid, masculine, un-pretentious. While we can want nice, upscale stuff, the city does not have to try to be a totally hipster haven or seek to emulate Boston or Paris.
- Un-pretentious is good, but I do think the city needs to get to where it can show more pride and swagger about what it is. Not naive boosterism, but rather a firm belief that it can be one of the national winners, that it can move up in the league tables, based on rich understanding of where it is and where it wants to go. They city has to be able to stop apologizing for what it is. I remember reading once in the Wall Street Journal where they talked about Eli Lilly interviewing MBA candidates, and the first question Lilly asked was, “You do realize this job is in Indianapolis, right?” This was years ago. While the city might have needed to apologize then, things are different today, and they’ll be still better tomorrow. The city needs to get to the point where it has the courage to tell that top MBA recruit that “one great thing about this job is that it is in Indianapolis”.
- Indy is the place where you can help write the future, where you can be a producer, not a consumer. Someone mentioned this to me before and it helped crystallize my thinking on this point. Indianapolis has one of the most open, receptive social structures out there. Of course there are established social networks and hierarchies. But the point it, they aren’t impenetrable. I think it is a unique place where outsiders can come and make a difference, perhaps moreso than any other place I’ve seen in the Midwest.
For more, please read that previous brand promise posting. Whatever the case, it is critical that a vision and brand be created that can inspire people to want to live in the city, especially people who have no connection to it. That’s where all the focus on brain drain falls down. I’m skeptical of the brain drain concept, and one reason is because it implicitly assumes that the only people who would consider living in a place are people with some pre-existing connection. But Silicon Valley didn’t get its tech talent by retaining its home grown talent. It got it by hoovering up everybody else’s home grown talent. Most very successful cities have high out-migration rates. But they also have high in-migration rates that more than offset the losses. We need to boost brain inflow more than we need to staunch brain outflow.
In the mid-90’s, one of my old college roommates rented a U-Haul trailer, packed up his stuff, and moved from Kokomo to Seattle sight unseen. While my sample size might not be the greatest, I don’t know anyone who, without either a specific career opportunity in hand or a pre-existing personal connection, decided they wanted to move to Indianapolis, who decided, this is where I’ll plant my flag and make my fortune. But that’s where we need to get to. Until a city has some intrinsic attraction to people without a connection to it, it’s operating well below potential. I asked a local leader what his ambition for Indianapolis was, and he said, “To be one of the top cities in America people aspire to live in.” Amen. Imagine that, people aspiring to live in Indianapolis. That’s where the city needs to get. No, it doesn’t have to be New York, where millions dream to make it big in the world’s ultimate arena. But it has to figure out what to do for domestic talent what it is already doing for its surging international immigration population, namely create a compelling brand and environment that makes people want to build their future there. And in a sustainable, real way, not in a 15 minutes of fame, flash in the pan way. There was a time in the mid-90’s when people moved to Cincinnati to start bands because it was a hot music town. The minute the music scene crashed, so did that people inflow. But Seattle retained its drawing power long after grunge was history.
So creating a better brand for Indianapolis, not just a better marketing slogan or tag line, but a better true brand positioning, is key. The city is really coming into its own as having a product worthy of a great brand position. The current brand position lags the product. It’s time to have a brand position that leads the product, and in a way that we can not just attract others, but also serve as an inspiration for those there to create the future they want to achieve as a community. As one Austin, Texas leader said about their community’s push to become the live music capital of the US, “recognize the power in the unadulterated brashness of saying, ‘We’re going there’ … It works more often than not.”
A great ambition might seem like just a little bit of a bridge too far. But I can imagine back when Mayor Hudnut, Jim Morris, and company were sitting around that table back in the 1970’s trying to figure out what to do to jumpstart the city and somebody threw out that line, “What about sports?” Would anyone then have believed that the NCAA would be headquartered in Indy, that it would regularly host the Men’s Final Four, that would host the Pan Am Games, and that Indy would not just be an NFL team, but bring home a Superbowl trophy? (Ouch, I know, I know, bad timing on that comment). I’m guessing even the people there would have thought it was crazy. But they aimed high, and succeeded beyond probably their own wildest dreams.
As I said, I tend to value ambition and continuous improvement. Others don’t. That’s a value choice and I recognize that to a great extent is it only personal preference. By all means if others don’t share it, then say so. But to achieve the things leaders have said they want to set out, like being a hub for life sciences, I believe this is something that needs to be done. It’s not just the mayor’s job. It’s everybody’s job. The mayor’s got a big gun of a bully pulpit. But the community has to help load the ammo and figure out where to point it.
Postscript. Both the cricket tournament and Chinatown ideas were creative thinking and good ones. Were they completely thought out? No. Are they guaranteed to be feasible? No. But as concepts they have a lot going for them. Cricket is popular internationally, so has the potential to boost the city’s international profile. It also is aligned with the city’s overall sports strategy. What’s more, cricket is huge on the Indian subcontinent, so it plays to the city’s growing Indian and Pakistani communities, and potentially helps recruit more immigrants from those areas. And as everyone knows, India has been huge in the technology space, so luring that Indian tech talent could be a boost to the local high tech economy as well.
As for Chinatown, traditional Chinatowns grew up as segregated ghettos. It isn’t feasible or likely even desireable to recreate them in that mold artificially. However, Indianapolis already has a thriving and growing pan-Asian commercial zone along 38th St. and Lafayette Rds. Why not add some branding? Now I’ll admit that I’ve never been a particularly big fan of ethnically branding neighborhoods. This is a recipe for tension when, as is inevitable, the demographics finally change. But it is frequently done in America and has worked in certain instances. The city already has a forthcoming $18 million project on the books to reconstruct 38th St. from I-465 to I-65. I don’t know the details on this project, but if it ended up doing nothing but creating a smooth driving surface but nothing else, that would be $18 million not properly leveraged to best effect. I said the city needs to dramatically improve its physical appearance, so this project needs to do that, as well as add multi-modal accommodations to the road. As part of this, why not include some pan-Asian signage and branding? Again, the commercial district exists and is real. This is only recognizing what is there, not trying to create something artificial. It also highlights the city’s diversity and would improve the appearance of the roadway as well. It’s a true win-win.