Melina Kennedy, Democratic candidate for mayor of Indianapolis, visited the NUVO offices on July 22. 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?
Melina Kennedy: We have an incredible quality of life. We need to improve upon it, but we have incredible parks and trails. The Monon Trail is something that is great for not only families but also businesses. My husband and I, who opened a business together 10 years ago, picked a site specifically because of the Monon Trail. We just have a great city that has great human capital, people who are willing to join together, step up and accomplish big things. Those are things I'd talk about, that I'd be very proud of.
NUVO: What aspects of the city make it a difficult place to brag about?
Kennedy: Certainly right now we have our challenges. The city has lost 35,000 jobs over the last few years. That's a tough reality we need to face. Crime continues to be a real challenge for our city. Even though we've seen some improvements, we've seen some challenges. Being able to walk down the Monon Trail safely at 4:30 in the day should be a given, yet we have people just in the few weeks walking down the Monon Trail shot several times. That does not make me proud. That is something we need to take on and improve upon.
NUVO: After Rebuild Indy money runs out, how will we keep up with infrastructure demands?
Kennedy: That's exactly why I made the proposal that I did today and I feel very strongly about it. That this is going to happen, the mayor has brought it through that the money is going to be transferred to city account in 45 days.My proposal today is to take a portion of those dollars, I propose $150 million, and create an endowment and use that to leverage other investments so that we have a long-term impact using interest over the long haul and matched by philanthropic, federal, and other dollars on things that really invest in human capital and make a real difference in our city...things like early childhood literacy, which I talked about in my speech today, and crime prevention and making sure people have the right skills for meeting jobs.
It's so ironic and sad that we have employers today in this economy looking for employees and people who really want jobs but they don't have the skills and they're not matching each other. So, I think it's essential that we not spend all of this money now and in 10 years when we celebrate our bicentennial and say "We paved roads, but now we need to build them again and there's nothing we can do."
Whereas, creating something longer lasting, like the endowment I proposed today, it's very specific...to invest in things that will be there for a long haul is very important and is going to be a big contrast between myself and Mayor Ballard.
There's still plenty of money for infrastructure and that is going to be something that is helpful to the city but we can't do something now that has no benefit down the road, which is why I made the proposal I made today...I think this is a critical point where we have huge challenges, but we have the opportunity to do something that will last for the long haul.
All of this is related. When you invest in making sure that someone has a diploma and is not incarcerated and has a job through some of the things I've suggested today at the same time as having some infrastructure, it's a balance. We should have an economy that generates more money. Having someone who starts a business and grows jobs is going to result in more property tax and income tax and help make this a more sustainable economy and environment. Again, I feel very strongly about the proposal I've made today as a good balance of thinking about how we invest in the long term so it's there and in 10 years it's not just all gone, we've seen some meaningful investments that are going to continue but also have made some improvements in infrastructure.
NUVO: What is the appropriate role for a city to take in terms of local economic development?
Kennedy: The Mayor's Office and the city government have a role to play in terms of making this a city with a great quality of life... Businesses are run by people, so you need to make sure this is a city where people want to locate because at the end of the day these decisions about where businesses start, where they move to where they grow are made by real people, so the city can do a lot toward the end of making this a city that is high quality, and there's many ways to do that.. They may not seem related but they are. One example is the smoking ban.
I'm fully supportive of an absolutely comprehensive smoking ban. That is the kind of thing that improves out quality of life and our indoor air quality. Everything from something like that to making sure that we have an environment where businesses are encouraged to start and grow, and that entrepreneurship is not just an afterthought, but something that people are thinking about from a very young age...
Those are the kind of things that a city can have a real role to play in facilitating so that this is a city where people want to start a business, they want to move here, they want to grow there business here.
NUVO: How would you prioritize redevelopment projects throughout the neighborhoods?
Kennedy: I think it's important to understand data and take a look at where we have great challenges. When it comes to unemployment, training, skills level, those kind of things, as a mayor, I'd want to know where do we have the biggest challenges in the city and let's try to focus additional effort in those areas.
Unemployment, for example, in the African-American community can be over 25 percent. That's a challenge we need to understand and then address.
In terms of prioritizing, one is understanding what the landscape actually looks like by understanding the data. Secondly, prioritizing by having more neighborhood and community input. I've been involved in a process over many years at the city where neighborhoods were really empowered to create quality of life plans and really develop from the grassroots bottom up what kind of things they find beneficial for their neighborhoods. When you do economic development from that vantage point you really do two things at once: Make it an environment that's positive for job growth but also one that makes residents feel engaged and have ownership in what happens.