Mayor Ballard’s much-debated 50-year contract with ACS to manage Indianapolis’ parking infrastructure squeaked through the City-County Council, thanks to the deciding vote cast by Council President Ryan Vaughn, who refused to recuse himself even though his law firm represents ACS.
As a national commentator wrote to Bill Hudnut after that vote, the fact that Indianapolis gave an insider a sweetheart deal is less distressing than the fact that this transaction was yet another piece of a longer-term trend. “When you were Mayor, it seemed to me that the community leadership was really committed to downtown and the City, to the point where they even invested their own cash to make it happen, such as the corporations that helped fund Circle Centre Mall. Today, it’s pretty much a portion of the community elite using government simply to pull money out of the City. I’m not sensing that there’s the same commitment to the City and its future as there once was.”
My husband and I both served in the Hudnut Administration (we met there), and we can still recall the energy and excitement of being part of a team that was working to create a new Indianapolis. We were partners with local business and civic leaders who were equally invested in that future.
A local civic leader I admire believes there is an important distinction between leadership and management: as he notes, cities must operate in a businesslike fashion, but they aren’t simply businesses requiring managers. Leaders understand that a city is the sum of the human values that make it up, the values that give cities their character, their “soul.”
For those who believe that there is no such thing as a city soul, or an identifiable civic culture, who think that this is all soft-headed romanticism, Neal Peirce has news for you: Civic culture drives economic development and fiscal health.
“We know the old and familiar way—grant tax subsidies or other special favors to nail down new office or factory prospects. Local tax bases take a hit and all taxpayers end up subsidizing the favored businesses. But to draw both investment and talented individuals—demonstrably the base of strong economies in today’s globalizing world—cities might focus more intensely on the qualities that most prominently build residents’ attachments to their communities.”
Peirce cites a key finding from three years of Gallup polling: what drives attachment to a community is not “the usual suspects” like jobs, the economy or even public safety. While these things are important, “soft” quality of life factors—social offerings, openness, aesthetics and education (especially the presence of colleges and universities) drive attachment.
Communities scoring well in these categories also have higher rates of economic growth. The theory is that when people feel more attached to their communities, they spend time and money there, are more productive, and tend to be more entrepreneurial.
Such communities develop when people elect leaders concerned with the greater good, rather than managers interested in cutting deals with favored insiders.