NUVO visited Mayor Greg Ballard of Indianapolis, a Republican running for re-election, at the Marion Co. Republican Party headquarters on Aug. 18. Excerpts of this interview were printed in our Aug. 24, 2011 issue. An edited, full-length interview transcript is posted below.
Editor's Note: Our profiles of Mayor Ballard and Melina Kennedy mark the first installment of our coverage leading up to this fall's municipal election. Over the next few weeks we'll analyze some of the complicated issues taking center stage in the mayor's race, offer many more detailed candidate profiles and provide some basic voter orientation information. Stay tuned for more stories leading up to the comprehensive NUVO Election Guide, currently slated to hit the street Oct. 19. If you'd like more details on any specific issues to help you make better-informed decisions at the polls, let us know!
NUVO: If you were to brag about Indianapolis at a national mayors' conference, what examples would you use about what makes this an exceptional city?
Ballard: You know, that's a great question... We don't have oceans, we don't have mountains and that sort of thing — We have people and I think that's how we've gotten along so well in the last 30 to 40 years, going back to Lugar. And I give Lugar a lot of credit, obviously, and all the mayors to include my predecessor. I give them a lot of credit for moving the city forward in a cohesive way and I think a lot has gotten done in that regard, but I also think there is another level to get to.
And I think we have been doing pretty good in that regard, certainly fixing the infrastructure, doing some police reforms, long needed. We're fixing a lot of the internal parts of the city to make them work better while still looking out into the future.
We have to understand the global economy because I'm not so sure as a city we understood that, certainly some of the businesses understood that. I think I have the first city administration that really got out there and said, "Listen, we must understand the global economy and embrace it." People in my office tend to not do that sort of thing because they tend to get slapped down sometimes. But I've been pretty much upfront about that.
The other piece is certainly becoming a much more sustainable city. There really was no green city office, no office of sustainability or anything like that until we came in to office, and we created that Office of Sustainability in 2008. I think we made a lot of progress in that. And the reason we're doing that obviously is to create the type of city where young men and women want to live (with) bike lanes, urban gardens, green gardens, pervious pavement, green-building incentives, hybrid vehicles... Those sorts of things were never done before and I'm sure a certain faction at NUVO were shocked to find out that we were going in that direction, but the fact is we needed to go in that direction because 1) It's the right thing to do. 2) It helps create the type of city where young men and women want to live in.
When I talk to a twenty-something, I say, "Is that the type of city you want to live in? And they say, "Yes." And whenever I bring up some of these things to like my generation or older and they say, "Well, I'm not so sure." I say, "Well, go ask your kid or go ask your grandkid." And then they get that answer. And then I think they understand it at that point in time, because its important for businesses to feel comfortable where they are and they can hire the type of people that they want to. So you have to create that type of city and I think that's the part we're looking forward to. I always talk about, I have ever since I've been the mayor, we need to look out 30 to 40 years and try to create the type of city where companies want to come in and do business and that they want to move to and raise their families.
NUVO: After Rebuild Indy money runs out, how will we keep up with infrastructure demands?
Ballard: Well, that's a great question, but I will tell you, I've got articles in my desk from 1991 saying that about the infrastructure, it's been neglected for decades. Would I like to have some sort of mechanism in the future to make sure infrastructure is always taken care of, absolutely, but what has happened over the periods of decades is that the short-term budgetary pressure has come into play and so this thing gets delayed or this thing gets delayed or this thing gets delayed, so all of this collectively has gotten delayed.
What we're doing, we're making up for a lot of time right now with what we're trying to do, so that has to be understood right upfront. I get asked that question a fair amount. I say, "So you mean you don't want us to do it now?" And no one ever says "no" to that question because it's been neglected for so long. And it really has, we're being fair about it, not being political about it. It's all over the city, it's in every part of the city. If you live and work downtown you might think it's just downtown, if you go to different parts of the city you'll see it all over the place, but if we can find a mechanism to do this, continue this in the future, I don't know... I will tell you before me there was never really anything quite like what's going on right now and I'm not sure that future politicians in 30 to 40 years will be able to figure that out because I understand short-term budgetary pressures and political pressures... But I'm suggesting to you that we're getting a large window for people to try to figure that out. We'll try to figure that out, but I suggest to you that it's going to be some successor after me.
NUVO: What aspects of the city make it a difficult place to brag about?
Ballard: Well, [LAUGH] you mean what are we not doing well? Well, actually I think we're doing pretty well. Honestly, I'm not in to city envy. Everybody talks to me about this and this and this. You know, we are who we are. But I think we've done a lot, I will give you a lot of different fronts I think we moved on I could probably name 8 to 10 right now that probably should have been done a long time ago. Police reforms, the ERP, Enterprise Resource Program which is the back office functions of the city, like the accounting functions, we had like literally hundreds of those systems... and things like that — we're gonna have one in the future, That should have been done a long time ago.
The infrastructure obviously, the dry infrastructure, the wet infrastructure underneath the sewer system which is still, in my opinion, the biggest story of 2010 that nobody ever, ever, ever covers. The $740 million dollars in savings [through compromise with the EPA on addressing Indy's combined sewer overflow problem] ...By the way, it's going to be more than $740 million dollars because of the bids coming in for the Deep Rock Tunnel are significantly less than we thought, so those sorts of things also will be done.
The Six Sigma to the city, the process of improvement methodology... we brought that to the city, we're growing our own green belts and black belts.
In the sustainability, like we talked about. I started IndyConnect, moved it to the private sector. So as we're not going to get it done in our lifetime, we've got to do something about that.
So when you look, I mean, we've moved ahead on all sorts of fronts, even the education piece. People are trying to beat us up, but the fact is we've been ahead on education, the community has been supportive and an advocate for a common goal which was the graduation coaches. I was part of the initiative for community coordinators in schools and we piloted one of those in our own charter schools. Challenge Foundation Academy (is) really an initiative that could have a dramatic effect... I was the sole mayor that was asked to go to the United Way Town Hall Meeting on Education representing at a national meeting hosted by Soledad O'Brien. I was the only mayor asked to go there because of the initiative that is happening in the City of Indianapolis. We expanded the charter schools, the excel center.
I hope you know what Indy Met is, the Metropolitan High School, (is) doing great work. Then the Excel Center takes these kids who were just out of high school, actually they have some older students, too, gives them a chance to get a high school diploma, not a GED... The DamarCenter which is going to open this fall for...those who have cognitive and behavioral disabilities.
So many, SO many things that we have moved a front on, I am really not feeling badly at all when I talk to other mayors.
All that said: We need to get mass transit fixed in this city, that's a big deal. Going back to what I said about creating the type of city young men and women want to live in, I have a daughter who told me, "Quite frankly, dad, I want to live in a city where I don't have to drive a car." Could have been the three accidents she had before the age of 17, might have been, I don't know, but I would say she's kind of a big city girl anyway, she moved to DC and she's now on her way to Tufts for grad school for the next two years, but she wants to live in that type of city, and I understand that because when I ask the twenty-somethings, that's the kind of city they're looking for.
...I am optimistic about the education reform for the statehouse and what we're doing here in the city, so I'm actually optimistic about education moving forward I think it will play out in three to four years. I'm liking what I'm seeing to be honest with you, that's why, you know, I assume you know, I put in that state legislation that we could take the schools back under local control. We've been working, that didn't just happen, we've been working with the state office for a long time now on that sort of thing, so we've been way ahead of the game on that and we anticipate in three or four years, we think it's gonna go. I've talked to some superintendents. I don't make a big deal out of this, but I go talk to these people and I've talked to four after the reform and said "How are these going to affect you and what are you gonna do?" So I get that sense of it, so I know what we can do to help, and I do that kind of low key, and everybody wants me to go pontificate. You will find out I'm not that kind of person, generally speaking. I'd rather get the job done and be low key...doesn't necessarily fit in with the mayor thing very well.
But the one thing that really creating that type of city where young men and women want to live in...we've got to really look at mass transit. I think we're moving forward on the sustainability piece and, of course, mass transit is a part of that sustainability piece. If we get education going the right way and we get mass transit in there, we are a super city. I mean, I think we are right now, when you compare who we are right now compared to everybody else, it's pretty dramatic.
There's a reason Forbes rated us as the no. 1 next boom town in the Midwest, there's a reason they did that. A lot of that data was based on the last few years, there's a lot of reason for that, so I think we have a lot of potential in this city. I think we're great now, people understand that. When visitors come into our city, the overarching comment..is, "I never knew, I never knew." With 65 percent of the people coming to the Super Bowl are decision makers in their organizations, that's good.