In 1995, Carmel, Indiana was like many other Midwest suburbs, complete with traffic congestion, decaying downtown area, outdated infrastructure, and the noise and grime associated with aging cities. Then they elected James Brainard mayor.
Five consecutive terms later, Brainard’s borough is now heralded as one of the most progressive cities in America. The North-Indy suburb is routinely featured on network newscasts and the covers of USA Today, NY Times, Money Magazine, and other national publications that city planners look to for ideas on how to make their cities more attractive to investors.
After all, who wouldn’t like to like their precincts to be counted among the ranks of…
- “#1 Best Place to Live in America” (Money magazine)
- “#1 Safest Suburb in America” (Movoto)
- “#1 Best Small City in America” (Nerdwallet)
- “#4 Safest Suburb in America” (SafeWise)
- “9th Fastest-Growing Place in America for High-Tech Jobs” (Forbes)
- One of “America’s 20 Safest Small Cities for Retirement” (#8 – badcredit.org)
- One of “America’s Best Places to Live” (24/7 Wall Street)
- One of the “Top 10 Best City for Kids” (Livability.com)
- One of the “Best Towns in Indiana for Young Families” (#1 – Nerdwallet)
- One of the “Best Cities to Relocate to in America” (CNBC)
CNBC’s report describes how Carmel’s below-average cost-of-living, home prices, and unemployment rates combine to make it one of the Top 30 job markets in America today.
This “Silicon Valley of the Midwest” has become one of the fastest growing communities in the nation, boasting a phenomenal growth rate, burgeoning from a populace of less than 32,000 in 1996 (when Brainard took office) to over 85,000 happy Hoosiers today.
And they did it all without the congestion, crime, and ballooning property taxes usually associated with rampant urban sprawl.
Known for his keen sense of environmental awareness, Brainard and his city have received a wealth of awards for their quality of life and environmental initiatives, including first-place in the Climate Protection Awards presented by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Now in his fifth term, Carmel’s CEO has implemented many environmental initiatives for the city. His world-renowned traffic “roundabouts” have reduced vehicle emissions and congestion. He also signed executive orders mandating the use of hybrid or flex-fuel vehicles for city use, and enacted a “No Idling” policy for city employees.
He encouraged his Utilities Department to develop technology using recaptured methane to power its wastewater treatment facility, and convert its waste into fertilizer, saving transport costs and fuel consumption (previously spent hauling it to a landfill). He recently initiated research into the feasibility of using wind energy as a future power source for the plant.
King of the Roundabout
Of all his accomplishments, Brainard takes special pride in his city’s traffic “roundabouts.” Not to be confused with the notorious “rotaries” or “circles” found in our nation’s capital and other northeast cities, Brainard’s European-inspired roundabouts are a far cry from the unpopular sprawl of confusing signals, stop signs and concentric lanes found in places like New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Not only do his (80+ and counting) roundabouts slash costs for tax payers, they also reduce emissions, save fuel, increase capacity, and cut down on accidents.
“The signalization equipment costs us $150,000,” explains Brainard. “We save anywhere from $150,000 to $400,000, probably on average, over a stoplight configuration.”
Statistics from the Federal Highway Administration prove that roundabouts increase transit capacity by 30 to 50 percent compared to traditional intersections. This keeps vehicles moving and reduces congestion. Simply put, Carmel commuters get where they’re going faster than drivers in other parts of the country.
Brainard, however, says that his main concern is public safety. He boasts that his constituents have experienced a 40 percent reduction in accidents and an 80 percent reduction in related injuries since replacing their traffic lights with roundabouts. “It eliminates left-hand turns and slows everybody down,” he explains. “We have more roundabouts than any other city in the United States. And we’ve lowered our accident rate by about 80 percent as a result.”
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports an average decrease of 40% in all accidents, and an astounding 90% drop in fatal collisions when traffic signals are replaced with roundabouts. That means lower insurance rates for all.
“And they’re prettier,” adds the mayor. “Sculptures and landscaping adorn some of the traffic islands. It’s made a huge difference in the way our city looks and feels.. and in the way people get around.”
The New Cultural Center of the Midwest
The “New” Carmel has forged a national reputation for embracing the arts, with an Arts & Design District that rivals the cultural centers of Europe. Its 21st-century Arts and Design District is home to a delightful mix of art galleries and ateliers, specialty retailers, restaurants, a music school, and more. Residential units are mixed in, nested above the storefronts.
Inspired by the success of the Arts District, the mayor set out on the second phase of his plan: City Center. The new downtown area is an 80-acre mix of residential, office, retail, and entertainment venues laid out to encourage walking. Parking is hidden below ground or in decks behind the buildings.
“As Americans — those of us who can afford to do so — we travel to Europe yearly on vacation,” says Brainard. “We enjoy sitting in 300-year-old piazzas, town squares and sidewalk cafés. For us it always begs the question: ‘Why haven’t we built cities like this?’
“Europe’s done a beautiful job since World War II, rebuilding and restoring these older cities. And I think there’s great admiration on the part of many Americans for European cities. As I’m out talking with people [in Carmel], I oftentimes hear things like, ‘This is just like being in Europe!.’
“We have a lot to learn from Europe, and it just makes sense to build our cities with design principles in mind that have been used for centuries.”
You’ll find no sprawling subdivisions and strip malls in Carmel. Brainard’s vision has transformed his realm into a city where people can live, work and play — with an emphasis on walking.
“We’ve got to start designing our cities for people first and automobiles second,” says the mayor, who picked up many of his ideas while studying at Oxford and visiting other “trendy” cities in Europe during the ’80s.
His plan was ambitious: Take the “Old Town” heart of Carmel, and turn it into a cosmopolitan mecca to rival the Old World charm of cities like Paris, Florence, and Venice, complete with brick sidewalks and antique street lighting. Throw in some upscale boutiques, art galleries, and cafés, and arrange them within walking distance of each other.
The heart of City Center is the $130 million, 1600-seat Palladium concert hall, a 21st-century version of New York’s Carnegie Hall. A second building houses two state-of-the-art theatres. The two publicly-funded buildings opened in 2010.
“We want to be a destination for new business,” the mayor said. “So we needed to add some assets. The first is that people ought to be able to find a grocery store, a dry cleaners, a drugstore, a good restaurant within a mile of their home. The second is to build a city that’s easy to get around — where you don’t always need a car — and doesn’t tie you up in endless traffic jams.”
How to Pay for All This?
In a state rife with fiscal conservatives, the mayor’s plans haven’t been without criticism. Some worry that such explosive growth could affect taxpayers’ ability to meet the city’s obligations in the long term. After all, NOBODY wants to pay higher property taxes.
Innovative thinking has enabled Brainard to cement Carmel’s reputation as a beacon of Midwest prosperity without resorting to “picking the pockets” of home owners. Enter the T.I.F. (Tax Increment Financing).
TIFs leverage anticipated tax revenues at a project site to underwrite its development. If the value of a site doesn’t climb according to plan, however, the city must reach into its pockets to pay the debt. So far, it’s working.
“We take pride in the fact that we have managed to stay ahead of that growth,” beams Brainard. “Our focus on strong fiscal management has yielded exceptional credit ratings, attracted top companies to Carmel, and kept our residential tax payments some of the lowest in the state.”
Credit-rating behemoth, Standard & Poor, backs him up; based on their assessment of the city’s fiscal management — including its ability to cover its debts and expenditures — it reports Carmel’s bond rating at AA+.
Of Indiana’s 117 cities, Carmel’s tax rates are ninth-lowest in the state, while home values have steadily risen since Brainard took office. “We are in a lot better financial shape [than many cities],” he says. “The economy is a lot better here. Revenues are up, building permits are up, and the unemployment rate is down.”
Giving Carmel “The Business”
It’s not just families that are moving to Carmel. Businesses are also drawn to the city, particularly those in the medical and bioscience professions. Brainard and his administration are credited with “creating” tens of thousands of new jobs since his arrival in office. The city is currently home to over 50 major corporations like MISO, CNO Financial Group, Delta Faucet, NextGear Capital, Baldwin & Lyons, Geico, and others who have set up shop in Carmel in recent years.
The Meridian Street Corridor now boasts the second largest concentration of office workers in the state. Over 30% of Carmel’s tax base comes from commercial sources.
Step three of Brainard’s plan to attract even more high-tech and life sciences firms to his city, is to build more multi-family housing. More than 1,300 apartments have been built since 2007, and more are in the works.
They Call Him a “Tree Hugger”
Ask ten Republicans what they think of “Global Warming,” and nine of them will laugh at you. Brainard says global warming is no laughing matter. “This is an important issue for Republicans to take leadership on,” he asserts. “It’s real, it’s serious, and it’s nothing to be coy about. Why would I argue with 97 percent of scientists?”
Brainard has co-chaired the Energy Independence and Climate Protection Task Force for the U.S. Conference of Mayors since 2005, and is one of only four Republicans sitting on the President’s 26-member climate task force.
But what would you expect from a man who rides a bicycle to work? The mayor believes he can pursue economic growth, increase population, improve quality of life — AND reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, all at the same time.
In addition to the environmental initiatives mentioned above, Brainard has set a goal to achieve 50 percent tree-canopy on Carmel streets. He spearheaded the building of a vast system of pathways and sidewalks to encourage walking and biking. Under his direction, the city also opted for a water-treatment technology that kills bacteria with ultraviolet light rather than chlorine.
“It’s starting to get to the point where the states that don’t clean up the air are going to be at a great disadvantage for economic development,” he says. “People have a choice where they put their business facilities, where they choose to work and spend their lives. And if they know they have a great chance of dying younger and their children having asthma and other lung diseases, they’re not going to come to those states. We need to make those changes.”
Brainard says he hopes to continue providing the infrastructure and leadership necessary for Carmel to continue being the best city anywhere to live, work, and enjoy life.
“We had to figure out how we were going to compete,” he says. “We realized that if we wanted to succeed, we had to make Carmel a place that the best and brightest — from around the country, and around the world — would want to live in. Successful cities now, and especially as time goes on, have to compete for good, well-paying jobs by having a sufficiently good quality of life to attract the best and brightest employees. If we can continue do that, then employers will be willing to locate here.”