click to enlarge Carmel Mayor James Brainard, the only mayor in his city's history elected to four terms, believes that art, business and eco-awareness are all vital parts of a sustainable future. Photo by Stephen Simonetto

Carmel Mayor James Brainard, the only mayor in his city's history elected to four terms, believes that art, business and eco-awareness are all vital parts of a sustainable future. Photo by Stephen Simonetto

A mayor for the new millennium 

You might be excused for thinking that Carmel's mayor, James Brainard, hails from a seemingly bygone political era. A time, that is, in Indiana politics when being a Republican had more to do with finding practical ways of growing a community than with defining government as a problem. Brainard's line of descent includes the likes of Richard Lugar, Bob Orr and John Mutz, none of whom, it's fair to say, could pass a Fox News purity test.

Brainard, for example, doesn't seem to have qualms about taxing businesses in Carmel. In part, perhaps, because he uses that revenue to make Carmel a more attractive place to do business. Indeed, Carmel's Meridian St. corridor boasts the second largest concentration of office workers in the state.

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.

All of this activity, of course, has drawn its share of criticism. As the town has grown and undertaken ever more ambitious building projects – completely recasting its city center, among other things – some citizens in Carmel have challenged Brainard's fiscal accounting, as well as his priorities. These issues are sure to be in play during Carmel's 2011 election season.

And people in Indianapolis, particularly those who have spent the better part of the past 30 years trying to revitalize the city's downtown, have made it clear they see Carmel's full-speed-ahead approach to cultural growth and, especially, arts-directed funding, as a potential threat.

Brainard respectfully disagrees. From his perspective, Carmel is stepping up to the plate in helping create a more vibrant Indianapolis metro area.

NUVO called on Mayor Brainard recently to learn more about why he believes so strongly in progressive urban policies – and how he makes these policies work for Carmel.

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: You also decided to make a major performing arts center a cornerstone of Carmel's center.

Brainard: Since Indianapolis has already done every sports venue conceivable to mankind, let's see what public amenities are lacking. They're lacking in the arts.

We don't have a dedicated concert hall. We have two or three really good drama theaters. But – and here I'm not just speaking of Carmel, but the Indianapolis region – we want to be one of the 15 cities on the North American continent that has a true concert hall. Since we're in Indiana, here's a sports analogy: A concert hall is different from a theater just as a baseball stadium is different from a football stadium. You don't have a fly and wings to draw up the sound in a concert hall. The rake of the seats is different.

We found through our feasibility studies there was a great need for a dedicated, purpose-built concert hall, as opposed to another theater, in Carmel. Now we also are building two small theaters for local groups. But our $150 million building is a concert hall and it will be one of the few in the Midwest. As a result, we think we might attract performers and acts that might otherwise not come here.

We were able to not only attract Michael Feinstein, but his foundation, which has all this memorabilia from the Great American Songbook era. We beat out Las Vegas and L.A., New York and Boca Raton for that museum. That demonstrates the point that we're not in competition with Indianapolis. This is going to help the Indianapolis region. It will bring people to see that collection that might otherwise be going elsewhere.

NUVO: But what do you say to the skeptics who question making the arts a priority to this extent?

Brainard: Sometimes you just have to say to folks that disagree with you that you're in the position to decide to move ahead, and there's this thing called an election coming up if they don't like it. You just have to make the decision to do what you think is right and best for your community.

But to the thoughtful critic, who's willing to listen to data and arguments, I think you point out other cities' experience. I just returned from a trip with three other U.S. mayors to Florence, Italy. The city of Florence is actually the owner of Michelangelo's"David." Now that was a pretty good investment in public art 500 years ago because, today, I imagine they get about eight million tourists a year to look at that piece of art, among many others.

We laugh, but that was a city of 35,000 people when the Medicis were building that art collection which is, in essence, owned by the city of Florence.

It's tried and true. This isn't inventing the wheel. We know that arts are huge economic development drivers. In our case, to build the Palladium, we're using nonresidential taxes; we're using money from the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) revenue from businesses that have grown, that have located here after we announced the project. The theory is they might not be here if the project didn't exist.

But we've had at least $300 million [in private funds] invested around the area, which is a formerly beat-up, downtrodden area in the middle of Carmel, since we started our project. And we've got another $700 million promised. Just today I've received two calls from businesses that are interested in locating in our city center.

NUVO: And you can attribute this to the cultural emphasis?

Brainard: To be fair, it's a combination of things. It's good schools, a good library, a low crime rate. It's a beautiful city, a city that, from a traffic standpoint, functions with our roundabout program. We're focused on nodes, not roads, and not having to pave as much.

People are excited. Business owners are excited. We already have one tech firm that's located in the middle of the city center. We're talking to two others. Even in the middle of this recession you can look out the window and see [construction] cranes. It's a nice thing.

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: You've said, in reference to the Palladium, that this isn't just about Carmel. But there are arts administrators in Indianapolis who see it as a kind of competition. What is your regional vision and how does what happens in Carmel relate to downtown Indianapolis?

Brainard: So many times Carmel's criticized for people living up in a fairly clean, new community [and] low tax rates. Are we really contributing our share to the urban challenges? I thought, [Indianapolis] has all these original amenities, everything from the museums to the sports venues. To a great extent, a lot of them have been supported by Indianapolis or Marion County residents. I used to be a Marion County resident. My first house was in Broad Ripple. So I thought folks in Indianapolis would embrace this. They'll see this as Carmel finally stepping up to the plate and saying, "it's our turn to provide one of the regional amenities that will make this entire region more competitive."

I was really surprised to not have it received that way in some quarters. Some people thought it was competition and I kept saying, "no, it's meant to make us competitive." [Carmel] is part of Indianapolis the same way Broad Ripple is part of Indianapolis. Or Greenwood's part of Indianapolis. Or Fountain Square. We're different parts of Indianapolis, even though we have these political boundaries. To anybody from more than 40 miles away, it's Indianapolis – or Central Indiana. Our competition is Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville, and Toledo, and Kansas City and Chicago.

We were very careful to make sure we didn't build another major theater complex. We built a concert hall. The first true concert hall in Indiana. Should it be downtown [Indianapolis]? I'm not sure it really matters. If there's demand for a second one, at some point – and there very well could be, if central Indiana becomes an arts mecca – it probably should be downtown. But I don't think Marion County could afford to build one right now. We could. So we're able to move the region ahead, make us competitive. I really believe we can bake a bigger pie, not just take a bigger slice of pie.

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.

Here's where I differ from some of the proponents who say we need another governmental entity [for public transit]. We have one: It's called the Indiana Department of Transportation. They need to do this. They need to come in and do it on a regional basis.

NUVO: What's it going to take for us to finally see real action on public transit?

Brainard: It's going to take leadership at the state level to get it done. Local level can help. On the local level I don't know anyone who's opposed to it. We all differ about how to fund it, have different ideas and good discussions, but we can't move ahead until there's strong state initiative. It really comes down to individual leadership saying, "if we want a capital city in Indianapolis that's competitive around the world, we need a better public transportation system."

NUVO: What has Carmel been doing to be more sustainable?

Brainard: We won the top award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors two years ago for climate protection for our roundabout program. People don't talk about our roundabouts being an environmental initiative, but we save several million gallons of fuel per intersection per year by not idling at the stop.

Another benefit of the roundabouts is we don't have to add new lanes at the intersections. You don't have to tear up all that land.

Building codes are tremendously important – how we heat our buildings. We're looking at green codes. One of the next steps for Indiana is we need to make the building codes more efficient. Some people are concerned about climate change, some are concerned about efficiency. It doesn't really matter, you get to the same place. For those who don't believe in climate change, I say, do you want to buy a lot of energy, spending more of your hard-earned money?

We're working hard on making sure people can live in mixed-use neighborhoods to cut down the amount of driving. Our trail system is trying to make it so you can walk or bike anywhere in the community. We're not there yet, but we've come a long way. Indianapolis, as a whole, has done well in that area.

Density's a bad word in the United States because it's been done so poorly in so many places. People have this misconception that it has to be ugly, dirty. They have this vision of alleys with broken glass and drug deals going on. I think we have to show that denser, walkable, pedestrian-friendly areas with street fronts and outdoor cafes and flowers and small public parks and green spaces that can be shared can be beautiful. A city can be beautiful.

So we're limiting our heights to about 10-11 stories, tops. We're not going to put 50-story buildings in Carmel. It's the height that buildings in Paris, London and Rome were built to before structural steel allowed people to go higher. We pay attention to scale. We pay attention to massing. We pay attention to all those architectural rules that people used to pay attention to when they designed beautiful cities.

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.

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