Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Nuvo: A Mayor for the New Millennium

[ I’ve written extensively about Carmel, Indiana on this blog – see, for example, Next American Suburb. It’s an Indianapolis suburb with a very aggressive agenda of suburban retrofit, and I believe a “secret weapon” for the region. David Hoppe of Nuvo, Indy’s alt-weekly, is my favorite local writer on arts and culture. He interviewed Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, creating an interview that is an absolute must read for urbanists everywhere. Brainard does an incredible job of laying out the case for a more progressive urban vision in a way that speaks to the average person. Nuvo graciously allowed me to run an extended excerpt, but there’s much more where this came from so please read the entire interview at Nuvo’s web site. You won’t want to miss it – Aaron ]

The only mayor in Carmel history to be elected to four terms, Brainard has presided over a remarkable period of growth that has seen his community’s population grow from 25,000 to 85,000, with a median household income of $89,414, compared to $47,966 for the state as a whole.

Even more remarkable is that Brainard has achieved this growth and political popularity in one of America’s most conservative political strongholds (McCain carried Carmel with 61 percent of the vote in 2008; Bush received 74 percent in 2004) by championing policies that place the arts and environmental sustainability high on the civic priority list. While the rest of Indiana has been getting failing grades for air and water quality, Carmel took first place in the Climate Protection Awards presented by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2008. And while public funding for the arts in Indianapolis has been cut to pre-2000 levels, Carmel is investing $150 million in a new performing arts center, slated to open this coming January.

NUVO: How did the arts and environment become policy priorities in Carmel?

Brainard: I grew up in a household where my dad was a school music teacher. My mother was a piano teacher. So I suppose that had something to do with it.

But we’re in competition in central Indiana. This region is in competition with cities all over the world. Carmel’s not in competition with Indianapolis or vice versa. We’re in competition with cities across the globe. If I am the owner of a tech company, I can choose to put that tech company anywhere, so long as I can attract the top talent I need.

So how does central Indiana compete? We can compete by creating cities that are beautiful, sustainable cities with good public education. It’s important to remember that one of the things that’s distinguished America from every other country all over the earth is that we were the first to provide free public education. Maintaining that system is absolutely key to making cities successful.

From an economic standpoint, it makes a lot of sense for a city to invest in the arts. For every dollar of investment, six to eight dollars are returned to the taxpayer.

Last fall, a Kennedy School study at Harvard showed the average household in the U.S. drives 104 miles a day. That’s not sustainable from a lot of aspects. But it’s particularly not sustainable from a city financial standpoint because we’re building all these roads and maintaining these roads.

Have you gone for a romantic walk with your significant other recently, past the Walmart parking lot on one side and the six-lane road on the other? Probably not. And the reason you haven’t is because it’s not any fun! It’s not romantic. It’s not pleasing to the eye.

So we’re bringing the buildings back up to the street. Let’s go up a little higher. Let’s accommodate the car, but let’s accommodate them underground with garages. Let’s get people walking in the community. Let’s have options for people who don’t want to live on a big lot. That means apartments and condos and townhomes. And as we build this more walkable, sustainable community, one of the ways we make it beautiful is to have art. Public art.

We started a policy, as many other cities have across the country, of spending one percent of our general reserves for support of the arts about six years ago. Over time we’ve been able to buy a lot of public sculptures, support a lot of arts organizations.

NUVO: What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions that critics of cultural policy have?

Brainard: We haven’t had that many critics in Carmel. We have a very well-educated group of citizens. I think the last census of folks with a college degree showed us fifth highest in the county. It makes a huge difference. People are willing to listen and analyze because they’re trained – not because they’re different people – because they’ve been trained through the university process not to make quick judgments until they get all the facts.

And we’ve cut their tax rates. I think that’s a large part of it. I’m in my fourth term and residential taxes are lower in Carmel today than they were in 1986. So I think we have confidence from a lot of people in town that we are careful when we make major decisions. They’re not done on a whim, but carefully thought out and part of an overall strategy to keep our taxes low and our quality of life high.

Strategic spending can be a good thing. It can actually keep your taxes down. If we spend on things that attract businesses here that pay the majority of taxes, it means our own taxes don’t have to be as high. So far our strategy’s worked out beautifully. We’ve attracted a tremendous amount of investment. Almost one-third of Carmel’s property tax revenue comes from business. Normally in a city, it’s 10-13 percent.

NUVO: People critical of public investment in the arts often say it’s an elitist enterprise.

Brainard: I think that, in some cases, can be valid. In our case, that’s why we’re focused on public sculpture in the downtown area that can be enjoyed by anybody who wants to walk down the street. You don’t have to pay a high-priced ticket to get in. That’s exactly one of the reasons we’re raising an endowment to support our performance venues – to hold ticket prices down.

I have a relative who was married in Costa Rica last summer. One of the buildings we went to see was their opera house. It was a copy of the Paris Opera House that was built, I think, in 1895. You think about San Jose, Costa Rica in 1895, it probably wasn’t a very developed place yet. I envision dirt streets and jungle. Yet they built this beautiful replica of the Paris Opera House. It’s as if you stepped into Europe. I was talking broken English with the cab driver that took us there and he said the best thing about it is that government supports it enough that people like him can afford to go. He said he was able to see Pavarotti for five U.S. dollars.

And I thought, “that cab driver’s right.” We need to have programs that make it affordable for families and hardworking folks that maybe don’t have a lot of money. I think everybody involved in the arts needs to remember that.

NUVO: It creates a higher level of aspiration in the community.

Brainard: It gives people hope. It allows them to dream and to think and learn. Everybody should be able to afford to go to a concert or see a play. That’s why we already do a lot of outdoor concerts, a lot of free events. We want to continue those. Now, granted, artists like to get paid and make lots of money, and so there will be some events priced higher than others.

NUVO: Are there other ways in which cultural policy informs the community?

Brainard: The arts have played a part for centuries, going back to the Greek playwrights, in forming public opinion and being a vital part of a representative democracy. If we’re going to have a representative democracy, the arts are a way of communicating and discussing ideas. I happened upon a conversation in one of our outdoor cafes in Old Town just a few days ago. I overheard a group of six adults who were having dinner together, discussing the expression on the face of one our sculptures, a statue of a woman carrying a bunch of groceries, whether she’s happy or unhappy. It was fascinating to eavesdrop and hear this discussion about the expression on her face and what it meant. I’m thinking this is good. This is what art’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to inspire conversation and thought. Flower baskets are nice, but they’re not going to create conversation.

NUVO: Don’t you think public transportation has to play a part in helping people understand what a greater Indianapolis metro area can be?

Brainard: Without question we need better pubic transportation in this region, to be connected and to be able to get around. People say it’s so expensive, but what I didn’t realize until I was mayor is that to rebuild just a mile of county road is $5-7 million dollars. And you have to maintain that forever. That’s why so many cities are bankrupt. They can’t maintain the infrastructure of a sprawling development pattern.

I was looking at a comparable city in California. They have 150 miles of roads and the same population we do. We have 400 and some miles of roads. So we’re spending three and half times more on our roads – probably more because they don’t have winter. Then you have to police further out. You need fire stations. Providing decent services to the public goes way up when you have sprawl.

We appreciate that some people prefer to live on big lots – I do, I’m guilty along with everybody else – but there are a lot of folks who don’t want that yard any more. So we’re trying to provide options. When you do that, it makes public transportation more economically feasible. It’s really hard when everybody’s sprawled out. But when you’ve got dense clusters in areas, public transportation makes a lot more sense.

We – I mean, the Indianapolis region – [are] the largest metropolitan region in the country without a light rail or some form of subway system in the country today. Mayor Ballard has been pushing it. I’ve been impressed with him. I think he saw great public transportation systems in his military career when he was stationed in Europe and he wants to do similar things here.

One of the things public transit will allow him to do within a quarter mile of the stations – those areas generally develop in a very dense way. That creates an opportunity for a tremendous amount of redevelopment of those cores around the train or subway station. You get a lot of private sector investment because you know you’re going to have “X” number of people leaving that train station every day.

NUVO: What do you say to people who claim adopting green ideas involves sacrifice?

Brainard: I don’t see it as a sacrifice. Building a city that works better, is more economical, more sustainable and more beautiful – I don’t see that as a sacrifice. I see that as an improvement. And I think it’s evidenced by the fact that as we build this new downtown area, the population is skyrocketing in comparison to other, comparable cities.

Somebody said to me, “I wish so many people wouldn’t move here. I liked it when it was small.” I said, “Well, I suppose we could do that. We could not pick up the trash. Let some chuckholes start. Have some really blighted neighborhoods. Instead of people wanting to come, they’d want to leave.”

If you build an attractive place, people are going to want to come. They vote with their feet. And they’re voting in favor of Carmel.

You can read the rest of this interview at Nuvo Newsweekly’s web site.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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