Greg Ballard: A Legacy of Connectivity

by Thomas P. Healy

After a joint press conference with Mayor-Elect Joe Hogsett on Nov. 4, Mayor Greg Ballard shared with Indy Midtown Magazine some reflections on his two terms in office. Following are excerpts from the edited transcript.

Indy Midtown Magazine: When you first walked into the office, what was the most surprising thing you learned?

Mayor Ballard: That’s a really good question. I hate to go to the absolutes. Within the first year we had property tax caps and a recession that drove down income tax, so that was a real challenge immediately. I was for property tax caps. You need stability. I’m not sure it was the rate as much as it was the predictability —you didn’t know what it was going to be year to year. So all that said, we got property tax caps and the recession— and that was a challenge early on in 2008 and 2009.

IMM: The City has a structural deficit in the budget because the population we’re gaining is dependent on social services the taxpayers provide.

Ballard: That’s why you build up spaces where people move. For instance 40 percent of people who move in downtown are from out of county and they’re usually in the $80,000 to $100,000 income bracket. That’s why you build great spaces. That’s why Broad Ripple and Midtown are important. You’ve got to build good spaces there for people to move into it.

IMM: But some residents like things just the way they are.

Ballard: We’ve talked about this. If you stay where you are, you’re going backwards. Too many neighborhoods don’t understand that you have to keep rebuilding every building.

IMM: One of the first public meetings where I met you was at the Broad Ripple Village Association’s annual event in 2008, and for years you said that was the worst experience of your public career.

Ballard: I was there 2 hours! I said, I don’t know what you guys want. I don’t know what to take downtown to my team. Since then, changed story.

IMM: The Broad Ripple community spent four and a half years working on the Envision Broad Ripple plan, and there are still people asking, ‘Why did you put in these bike lanes!?’ or ‘Why do you want to develop along the Canal!?’

Ballard: How can they question building along the Canal? People move to water all over the world! They want to be next to the water. You’ve got a perfect amenity there—take advantage of it. I love the Canal Esplanade, but that’s a completely useless development unless I can sit there and have a beer on the Canal [laughs].

IMM: The Canal Esplanade project was 30 years in the making, and your support made it happen.

Ballard: I’ve always said we wanted to tackle all the issues that have been kicked down the road. And that was one of them.

IMM: Speaking of Broad Ripple, I still get asked about the parking garage. Do you think it was a good investment?

Ballard: I do. First of all, it became very clear to me Broad Ripple had been wanting that garage for 20 if not 30 years. It was a blighted piece of property and now contributes increment to the Midtown TIF. So we put a garage in that really doesn’t look like a garage, has a great piece of art in front and now you’ve got a great tenant in there—Hop Cat—that brings a lot of people into the Village. I think the garage has been good.

IMM: And there were other improvements—leveraging the new structure to get drainage improvements, crosswalk improvements for pedestrian safety, and an IMPD office.

Ballard: The synergy of all these things is really important. If you build a one-off somewhere, that doesn’t work. You have to put the amenity where it helps with other amenities so that people want to move into the area. When the Fresh Thyme project is finished, you’ll have two projects that are kind of new to the area that are going to work with each other really nicely, I think.

IMM: You also inherited $1 billion worth of deferred infrastructure. You came up with an innovative way to address that through Rebuild Indy. What led to creating that initiative?

Ballard: We knew what we wanted to do. I told my team early on, “Find me my Toll Road.” [Then-Governor Mitch Daniels had recently leased the Indiana Toll Road to a Spanish/Australian consortium for a large upfront cash payment.] That turned out to be the water/wastewater sale to Citizens Energy Group, which Citizens had wanted to acquire since the 1930s. We were able to get money up-front, which helped us get a lot of stuff started. That deal generated $425 million in cash. We put aside $80 million in the fiscal stability fund and $78 million of it is still there. The rest of it we leveraged with federal dollars and other dollars to fund well over half a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure in the city.

IMM: Within Midtown there are plenty of streets that had never had sidewalks before, much less drainage, and now they do.

Ballard: The scale of Rebuild Indy was vast. Here’s the best example: The City used to budget for one to two bridges a year—that’s what we were funded at. We did 60 bridges in a two-and-a-half-year period! That was the scale of Rebuild Indy in the city.

David Sherman [Ballard’s first director of the Department of Public Works] and his team were brilliant. Drainage is a big problem everywhere. There are too many places where people built and did not realize the drainage consequences. You pay the price eventually. Sherman provided a $1.5 billion benefit to our city—both above ground and below ground—and nobody seems to know it. He did so much work. When it rains, do you ever hear Frog Hollow any more? Remember, that was the first place TV cameras went. You don’t hear about it any more. Sherman fixed it. I could name all those places that used to flood. You don’t hear about them any more.

IMM: Your team also worked on connectivity.

Ballard: What I said to my team at the time was that we can’t just resurface roads and fix things—we have to leave something behind. What we are leaving behind is connectivity. That was extremely intentional—to have the trails and be very purposeful about connecting to bike lanes that we didn’t have before. Bike lanes are a traffic calming option, too.

Being able to put all those pieces together and having people be able to move about in the city not just in a car is extremely important to us because that’s what attracts talent. That’s what attracts people into places. I tell mayors across the country, you cannot build enough trails in the city. It’s like water—people move to be next to them. Businesses grow there. I was just in Irvington and opened up the Pennsy Trail section. There are 70 miles of trails that now connect to each other.

IMM: Your team completed Fall Creek Trail, now the longest linear park in the city.

Ballard: It’s a big deal. I’ve ridden from my office out to Fort Harrison on trails. Couldn’t do that 10 years ago! The other day I rode from my office, took the Cultural Trail up to the Monon, then took Fall Creek Trail up to Fort Harrison. Rode 10 laps on that 2.3-mile track. Came back down Fall Creek and to the Monon. I rode 52 miles that day. It was incredible and as fun as it could possibly be.

IMM: The City also has a well-regarded Complete Streets policy. Why is that important?

Ballard: Again it goes to place-making. We have great places like Midtown, where you have a great mix of people and amenities. If you do it right, Complete Streets is an amenity by itself. It’s a beautiful asset, if you will, not just a thoroughfare. I think that’s really important so people can move along there in different ways. It’s very difficult in mature cities and obviously we can’t do it everywhere in Indianapolis. But the more we can do it, it’s absolutely critical to create those places that draw talent into the city.

IMM: That ties into the big picture plans currently underway: Indy Connect, Plan 2020, Live Indy, Reconnecting to Our Waterways, Great Places – all these initiatives aim to accomplish the goal of making Indianapolis a magnet that attracts the next generation of residents and engaged citizens.

Ballard: We were part of initiating it a lot of this – sometimes with the Chamber, sometimes with Visit Indy, sometimes with Central Indiana Community Foundation. With LIVE Indy, LOVE Indy, Plan 2020, we wanted to engage younger people as much as possible to let them create the city they want to live in. That was a large part of this: to grow some leadership, some community spirit if you will. We listen to what people want and try to get there. That gave us a whole new set of ideas of what to do. We did it to engage people more than anything else. We wanted to chart a path but we wanted at the grassroots level as much as possible, allow them to chart the path and we come along side as a city.

IMM: From a Broad Ripple and Midtown perspective, sometimes it feels that the place-making focus remains downtown.

Ballard: It does, but I’m hesitant to go down that road because I hear that all the time. We did a lot of significant place-making work in the neighborhoods—a lot of it in Broad Ripple, Midtown, Irvington, Fountain Square. So anybody who suggests that we did not put significant money and great place-making in the neighborhoods—I hate to say it, but they’re just not paying attention. I kind of reject the notion that we did not do great work in the neighborhoods. That makes no sense to me.

All that said, Indianapolis’ downtown has to remain an economic engine not just for the city but for the state. There’s a significant amount of tax revenue generated downtown, so we have to keep the amenities up or people won’t move downtown. Like I was telling you before, 40 percent of people moving downtown are from out of county and a significant number are from out of state. That’s a big deal.

IMM: When you took office, you said public safety was Job #1. Eight years later, what do you think?

Ballard: It still is job #1. Four years ago we had the homicide rate down under 100. One year under 100 never happens, then we had four years below 100. Now it’s raised back up, which Joe Hogsett will inherit. There are things that need to happen. First, reform the 360 Coalition to try to address at-risk youths where they are. But that’s going to take 15 to 20 years. Problem is, nobody looks 15 to 20 years ahead. They look at next year, next political cycle, whatever. That just isn’t working.

The other thing is, I’m a big fan of mandatory minimums. I want 20 years if you use a gun offensively. With mandatory minimums our murder rate would be half of what it is.

IMM: What’s the greatest challenge in leadership?

Ballard: Perseverance is tough. It’s tough to bring people along. But you can’t let the 10 or 15 percent screaming the loudest dictate what’s actually going to happen when the 85 percent really want to go the other way. You gotta let the 85 percent win. That’s the way I see it. You have to endure. Know where you want to go and get there.

How this manifests itself for us is that organizations need to know what they want. They need to be organized and they need to be ready to receive the help. If you’re ready to receive the help, the City will come alongside and help you out. From a government level, that’s absolutely crucial. Otherwise you’re just wasting people’s money.


photo by Linda Evans