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Corbett Criticizes City’s Handling Of ITM

Corbett Criticizes City’s Handling Of ITM

Letter to the editor

Nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

-Abraham Lincoln

This quote came to mind as I watched the drama unfold between the Indiana Transportation Museum and the City of Noblesville. We are in the final stages of ITM’s eviction from Forest Park and I’d like to make a couple of comments on the way this episode has been handled.  
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Transportation Diversity

Transportation is changing. For the past 100 years or so we’ve been building our cities to accommodate cars as they have opened up new areas for development and allowed people to travel farther and more comfortably than ever before. But once we designed our stores, houses, parks, schools, libraries and other public places for cars we realized we lost something: the human scale that facilitates social interaction and gives a community its character.

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Citizen Engagement

Good governance requires active participation by citizens. You know what active participation looks like: people show up for public meetings, they let their elected officials know what they think, and they express themselves at the voting booth on election day. Engaged citizens hold elected officials accountable, especially at election time.

Its not easy to be an engaged citizen. You have to seek out information that isn’t always readily available. You have to make time for public meetings. You have to think through issues that aren’t always easy to figure out, and you have to convince decision makers that your point of view is worth considering. All of this on your own time.

The task is made that much more difficult when public officials seem to have no regard for what you say, when it appears that deals have been struck ahead of time and your comments are just being tolerated as a formality. That leads to voter disengagement and apathy, which partially explains why voter turnout is so low. Just 12 percent of registered voters actually voted in the last mayoral primary. That means the current mayor won the election with just 7 percent of the vote. To citizens, it often seems like what they think just doesn’t matter.

Here’s an example. When Noblesville and Fishers first started talking about turning the Nickel Plate Railroad into a trail, they held two public meetings. The first, in Fishers, didn’t give Fishers residents the opportunity to speak publicly and the mayor never even showed up. Two days later, Noblesville held a public meeting and the format was changed so people could speak their mind. The comments were unanimous from Noblesville residents: they wanted to keep the train.

So, what happened? The city went ahead with its original plan to rip out the rails without skipping a beat. Considering the public sentiment expressed at the meeting, you might expect our elected leaders to pause and think about what they were doing. Maybe investigate bit further. Maybe alter the plan to see if there was some kind of accommodation for the citizens who obviously took this issue very seriously.

But there was none of that. In fact, there is no official record that the meeting ever happened because it wasn’t a regular city meeting, just a chance for the public to express itself. Talk about being marginalized! No wonder people are fed up with government.

And this isn’t unique. I can name half a dozen similar examples, including the trash fee debate, the Seminary Park debacle and the Pleasant St. extension plan.

I know city officials have to make difficult decisions sometimes and everyone can’t always have what they want. But a responsive city government actually listens to its citizens and modifies its plans based on what they are hearing from the people. An arrogant and cynical government sees the people as an impediment to their plans and works to minimize comment so as not to upset their plans. That’s backwards and we need to change it.

Economic Development

It’s important to recruit new businesses to add to our tax base and give our residents employment opportunities. And I recognize that city governments have become players in the economic development game. Public-private partnerships are the way things get done these days. My problem is with the way we are managing these partnerships. I don’t think we’re getting the best bang for our buck.

Here’s what I mean…

When SMC Corporation moved to Noblesville some ten years ago, they asked the City Council for a tax abatement to move their headquarters from Indianapolis. At the time we were trying to lure businesses to the corporate campus and we wanted SMC and their hundreds of jobs, so we granted the abatement.

They built the facility and business has been good. This year, when SMC wanted to expand their building they again came to the council for another abatement. I attended the City Council meeting and expressed my belief that the city had done its part to help SMC get established in our city. It’s time, I argued, for them to step up and do their part. (read my comments to the city council here) It made no difference; the council voted to give them millions more dollars in abatements. The argument was that if we didn’t pony up, SMC could just pick up and leave.

That, of course, is unlikely, considering the millions they have invested in their building here. But even if they did consider moving over this, it simply points out the danger of paying businesses to move here. If all you have to offer is money, the next guy with a bigger purse can always outbid you. Paying businesses to move to Noblesville is a losing game and it has to stop.

A better way is to build the kind of community that businesses want to belong to. Build the infrastructure they need, recruit the labor force they need, establish business-friendly policies that make it easy for them to operate here. But don’t give away precious tax dollars that we need to run our city. The SMC abatement was worth about $7-$8 million over ten years. That’s real money that could have been put to a better purpose. Just two years ago the city council instituted a new tax on trash pick up that continues to increase every year. That money was needed just for deferred maintenance on our streets. I suspect if we hadn’t been so quick to give money to established businesses, perhaps we wouldn’t have had to raise taxes.

My fiscal conservative friends likely don’t agree that some tax incentives are OK. I believe they are, but we have to use them judiciously. It’s all about deal making here and I’m afraid we’ve done some bad negotiating. I’ve been in business all of my adult life and I think we can do better.

The Nickel Plate Railroad

Noblesville recently partnered with Fishers and the county on a plan to take out the Nickel Plate Railroad tracks and turn the right of way into a trail. I love trails. In fact I have advocated for them in my past two elections, even to the extent that I included an image of a bike on my campaign signs in the last election. We need more trails going to more places in Noblesville for a number of reasons. It would help relieve traffic congestion, improve the health of our citizens, improve the look of the city and add to our quality of life. Yes, trails are great, but it is a HUGE mistake to tear out the Nickel Plate tracks to create a trail. Here’s why.

Communities have been converting rails to trails for some 30 years or longer, but virtually all of them are on abandoned railbeds. Once the railroad is no longer being used and the tracks are deteriorating, it makes sense to take out the rails and use the space for a better purpose. But that’s not the case here. The Nickel Plate tracks were being used up until a year or two ago by a private non-profit to run trains to the State Fair and other excursions that were very popular. In fact, the Indiana Transportation Museum maintained both its equipment and the tracks with revenue from fares. No public funds were used for
regular operations.

But, in a classic case of government overreach, the cities and county decided they wanted a trail, which costs millions in public funds, to replace the railroad, which was self-supporting. It is simply unacceptable for government to purposely drive a thriving non-profit out of business and replace it with a subsidized public amenity, especially when it entails destroying irreplaceable assets like the railroad tracks.

The Nickel Plate is the second oldest railroad in the state. It is a unique public asset that other communities would love to have. The right of way extends all the way into downtown Indianapolis and Hamilton County owns it! The potential for excursion trains to Colts and Pacers games is just the beginning. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision other creative uses but our political leaders don’t see it.

I can understand why Fishers may not appreciate a train. The city has never had many historic assets and has little appreciation for historic artifacts now. But for our city leaders to roll over for Fishers’ plan instead of standing up for Noblesville’s values is tragic. The citizens made their feelings clear in a public meeting, unanimously speaking out for the train. But the comments fell on deaf ears as the administration proceeded to sign on completely to Fishers’ plan.

The fight isn’t over. The tracks are still intact but a federal panel has granted permission to rip them up and a Fishers committee is making plans now for the trail. I don’t believe Noblesville has the funds or a plan for its part of the trail. The Transportation Museum is being evicted from Forest Park and there’s little left of trains in Noblesville. I will fight to save what little we still have left and get back as much as we can of what we’ve lost. But this sad and sordid story will not end well unless we make significant changes in City Hall.

Learn more about the Nickel Plate issue:

Better Noblesville Article

Save The Nickel Plate Website

Firestone Plant

It seems like a great opportunity. 70 acres of undeveloped land in the middle of Noblesville. The problem, of course, is that its polluted. For years, Firestone and its predecessors dumped dangerous chemicals on the land, and its going to be very difficult to clean up.

But we have to do it. The land is right between a residential area and our major retail center. It’s not acceptable to have it fenced off with barbed wire forever. Federal grants are available to help clean up these sites, yet for the past nine years it has sat there, abandoned and ignored by our city officials. It is truly a blighted area and needs attention.

A few ideas have been proposed for the land over the years: a bus barn or storage facility come to mind. The mayor once proposed a dog park but nothing has happened. Most recently the police chief has been promoting the idea of building a new police station on the slab that used to hold the building. I like that idea. The slab wasn’t polluted like the ground around it and apparently is buildable. A new police station could spur new development around the site.

There are restrictions. Firestone has said they would never allow residences to be built on the land because of past pollution. Some of the land is more polluted than the rest. There is apparently a dump that still hold buried barrels full of poison. For more on this saga, go here.

I know this is a tough situation. Clean up will be expensive and dangerous. It may seem like the best alternative is just to leave it all in the ground and try to ignore it. But it’s right in the middle of town and I don’t think we can ignore it forever. The best solution is to bite the bullet: clean it up the right way, haul away the poisons, scrub the land clean and put it back into productive use.

It’s been nine years of neglect. Its time to act. The proposed police station is a good start but that’s the easy part. It’s time to tackle the hard part.

Pleasant Street Bypass

The city is spending millions of dollars to upgrade Pleasant St. as a way to bypass downtown and move traffic more quickly for cars and trucks that want to avoid the cross traffic and congestion. I understand the rationale but I don’t understand why the city insists on taking a route that involves cross traffic and congestion rather than a more rural route that would emphasize speed.

I go into detail on my objections to the city’s current proposal on my Better Noblesville website.  In a nutshell, the city wants to take an urban route that involves bulldozing some two dozen homes on both sides of the river while doing little to improve the urban landscape along Pleasant St.

My biggest concern is the integrity of the Southwest Quad neighborhood, which would be bisected in the interests of gaining a minute or two to cross town. You can imagine how you would feel if the city proposed building a bypass through your neighborhood. The homes in the southwest quad are some of the most affordable in town, and the people who live there won’t be able to find replacements at the same price they will get from the city for those houses. That’s a problem for a community that struggles to maintain affordable housing stock.

I could understand the city’s unwillingness to consider other options if there were none, but there are a number of alternative routes that wouldn’t involve destroying any houses, could have higher speed limits, and would open new land for development as a bonus. But the city won’t consider them.

I’m especially dismayed about this project because I see so much potential for the southwest quad neighborhood to compliment the city’s new cultural arts district. We have one of only seven designated districts in the state, and the district is meant to highlight our commitment to nurturing the arts. A cultural arts district needs artists and the starving artist is more than just an amusing stereotype. It’s a fact of life in most arts communities, which is why affordable housing is so important. These modest homes in the southwest quad are great raw material for an artist’s touch, and the neighborhood would make a terrific artist’s housing district. That we want to destroy it for the sake of a road is a darn shame.

I will do something about that.