Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Seeking Social Justice: Social Darwinism vs. Occupy Wall Street, Part 2

The pro-wealth, anti-working class rhetoric I’ve heard in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement is startling, at times sounding like lines from a Dicken’s villain or an 1880s letter to the editor bemoaning hobos. From facebook chats to local coffee shop conversations, from Fox News pundits to “Let it Out” comments in the Indianapolis Star, I’m told the poor are lazy and that the rich are “job creators” whose wealth is inevitable. I hear that any tax increase on the wealthy will kill jobs, and any efforts to limit the power of wealth or the widening gap between rich and poor in this country amount to socialist redistributions of wealth.

You have to want to believe that kind of meanness to hang onto it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, not to mention the opposing moral codes most of us were raised to believe in.

For instance, there has been a redistribution of wealth going on in America, but it’s not going in the direction most people think.

In 1980, at the dawn of the Reagan revolution, the average America CEO earned approximately 42 times as much as the average worker in their company. Today the average CEO earns about 325 times as much as much as his company’s average pay check.

Complain about that staggering pay inequity and the, “You’re a socialist who wants to redistribute wealth,” attack won’t be far behind. It’s a funny claim when you consider that most CEOs don’t own what they manage, they’re hired by their corporation just like the average worker. It’s actually the CEOs and their boards of directors who are redirecting the company’s wealth and hording it. Massive executive pay has become a cultural peculiarity in corporate American, at dramatic odds with pay levels at successful corporations in other industrialized nations.

You won’t hear much talk about this on the political right. Instead they’re busy attacking “overpaid” union workers – you know, the ones making 1/135th what the CEO is earning.

That “excuse the rich/blame the rest” mentality help’s explain growing income disparity in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009 the income gap between rich and poor Americans grew to its greatest level since household income was tracked, nearly double what it was in 1968, giving America the greatest income disparity of any industrialized western nation.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported last year that the disparity between the after-tax income of low and middle class Americans and the wealthiest 1% of the population is the greatest in 80 years. The CBPP attributed this largely to the Bush tax cuts. The wealthiest 10% of Americans got 53% of the total financial benefit of the tax cuts. It’s interesting to note that while Bush and then Republican majorities in the House and Senate were passing these tax cuts in 2001, they were opposing an increase in the minimum wage.

A political mass-email I received recently argued yet again that this income disparity exists because typical Americans are lazy. Hardly.

According to the Center For American Progress, nearly 89% of working American men and 66.5% of women work more than 40 hours a week. And though the Japanese are perceived as very hard workers, the International Labor Organization finds that Americans work 137 hours more a year than the Japanese. The productivity of American workers has increased 400% since 1950. What’s more, American workers take less vacation time than workers in any other western, industrialized nation.

So why do Occupy Wall Street haters continue to argue that people who want more pay equity are lazy bums who want everything handed to them?

In the past year we’ve been inspired by foreign street protesters who built encampments in cities across the world, from Egypt to Libya. But when Occupy protesters used the same tactics to protest for social justice in America, they were labeled lazy troublemakers. I saw a facebook post that pictured a group of American soldiers holding up a sign that reads, “Quit your bitching and get back to work.”

Really? In a nation with an actual (not official) unemployment rate above 10%, you’re gonna call unemployed people lazy? Really?

How about a little “peace on earth, good will toward men?”

And it gets even uglier. Recently on facebook I saw a post showing an image of a group of Occupy protesters set beside an image of flag draped coffins. A caption read, “Some want all. Some gave all. See the difference?” This is the cruelest cheap shot I’ve seen in politics in a long time. It didn’t just claim that people fighting for social justice want handouts for doing nothing, it suggested that fighting for it was some sort of insult to our fallen soldiers. And yet, approving comments accumulated for that hateful message.

I sat in the IRT last Sunday night with my family watching a marvelous stage version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” As Scrooge went on his rants about the lazy poor who have too many children (lines written in 1843), as we watched the struggles of the hard-working, but poverty-stricken Cratchit family, who needed but couldn’t get health care for Tiny Tim, I got to wondering who’s side Occupy Wall Street haters would be on. What Scrooge was mouthing was only a slightly meaner version of what I hear regularly in political discourse about wealth and poverty in present-day America.

The Occupy Wall Street movement isn’t about socialism. It’s about social justice. Which is ironic, because I so often hear conservatives talk about the “good ol’ days.” But America of 40, 50 or 60 years ago was a time when the wealthy made less and paid far higher taxes, and when common workers made more and union membership was far more common. I guess some people are a little forgetful about what the good ol’ days were really like.

The data make it pretty clear, on economic terms, the good ol’ days America is now evolving toward isn’t like the ‘40s, ‘50s, or ‘60s, but more like Victorian-era America, when the poor made up the largest share of the population, the middle class was relatively small, and the wealthy controlled a staggering percentage of the national wealth and used it to utterly control the political system.

Social justice is something most of us believe in. And we didn’t learn it from an ACLU pamphlet or a socialist manifesto. We learned it on Sunday mornings in church as children.

What record we have of the life of Jesus reveals a man who spent most of his days preaching in favor of social justice – love your neighbor, help those who have less than you. So why is it such a threatening message when it’s voiced in the political arena?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Worshiping Wealth: Social Darwinism vs. Occupy Wall Street, Part 1

When conservative pundits quickly labeled Occupy Wall Street protesters as lazy, class-warfare, socialists, few seemed to realize they were revealing their own class-conscious bias, casting their own stones in America’s escalating season of class warfare.

Perhaps the quickest way to draw the ire of modern-day conservatives is to question the legitimacy of unlimited wealth. It’s a reminder that blind faith in the purity of wealth has far deeper roots in America than does socialist leanings.


In Victorian-era America, beliefs eventually labeled Social Darwinism were commonly accepted notions. Promoted by English philosopher Herbert Spencer and sociologist William Graham Sumner, it applied Darwin-like theories about the biological evolution of man to economic success.


In the thinking of Spencer and Sumner, Bill Gates is at the top of the food chain – he’s a superior human being, and you . . . well, if you’re a working stiff, your knuckles might as well drag the ground. To Social Darwinists of the 1880s & ‘90s, this was not only true, but also a good thing. The rich would pave the way for mankind.


You hear this echoed today in the rhetoric on the right who label the rich as, “job creators.” Kinda funny when you consider how many top earners have gotten massive year-end bonuses for cutting jobs at their companies, not creating them.


It’s surprising how many middle and low-wage earners subscribe to the lavish, “job creators,” linguistic spin, too, but it’s nothing new. This worship of the wealthy also wormed its way into the hearts of envious and hopeful 19th Century Americans who eked out lives of drudgery.


Funny, the more things change the more they stay the same.


Nearly 150 years ago, Spencer and Sumner urged trickle-down economic policies with few regulations on commerce and wealth. Let the rich get richer and it will eventually help the poor. And they opposed aid to the poor. Why intervene against the laws of nature? The rich were rich and the poor were poor as a result of natural selection.


Before that century’s end, Social Darwinism took on an ironic twist that no socialist critic could have concocted. It became justified on a religious basis by the very forces who railed against Darwin’s original theories. Not only were the rich a product of natural selection, but also that selection was sanctioned by God. Poverty was punishment for sin.


In his famous speech titled “Acres of Diamonds,” given thousands of times in big cities and small dusty towns across the country in the1880s and 1890s, the Reverend Russell Conwell argued to adoring audiences, “ . . . the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, . . .”


In this era Mark Twain dubbed “The Gilded Age,” industrialists smugly clutched this concept to their chests as justification for the profits they ground out of the lives of poor immigrants. And many immigrants themselves accepted that thinking. Ashamed of their circumstances they hoped, “maybe I’m pure enough to become wealthy, too.”


There’s nothing wrong with upward mobility – it’s everyone’s dream and the rational path to a more comfortable life, but to think it would put you straight with God converts the American Dream into an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt earn a fortune.”


This Victorian faith in wealth-without-limits played out in an era of corporate monopolies and trusts that at times virtually enslaved workers and cheated small business people as a matter of intended function. These abuses of power were so egregious they led to anti-trust and child labor legislation, and eventually the rise of labor unions. But the Social Darwinists of the era decried such developments as unnecessary intrusion into free enterprise.


Interestingly, this justification of boundless wealth for a chosen few at the expense of the majority, though defended as free enterprise, ended up having far more to do with notions of monarchy. The monopolies and trusts, best exemplified by the railroads, Standard Oil, and U.S. Steel resulted in a kind of semi-free-enterprise feudalism, with corporate leaders living like economic lords, dukes and kings, ruling from positions of staggering wealth, perverting the political system and national commerce for their private benefit.


Most modern Americans cringe at these theories and the brutal economy it created, but sympathy survives. Look up Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” on Amazon.com and see it heralded in reader reviews as a long forgotten, inspirational text.


On the surface, Social Darwinism has been relegated to the past with other harsh beliefs our ancestors once held dear, but in the same way a great grandmother’s eyes or smile are passed down through generations and inherited by a great grand child, we see glimpses of Social Darwinism today in our attitudes about the rich and poor.


Unquestioning faith in wealth is alive and well in America and influences our current political debates about taxes, balancing budgets, regulating Wall Street, the assault on teacher, police, and firefighter labor unions, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.


In the late 1800s Social Darwinism was a jagged stone in the soul of America. That stone has tumbled down the riverbed of a century, its rough edges rounded, it’s nasty pallor polished smooth. But it’s still the same stone.


Next post I’ll take a more modern look at these pro-wealth impulses.


Update on Positron Post:

During an October post criticizing Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear's plan to offer the Fisher's-based corporation, Positron millions of dollars in hand-outs to relocate in Noblesville, I detailed Positron's long history of legal troubles. In late November the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission accused Positron's CEO of defrauding investors. To read details printed in the IBJ, follow this link: http://www.ibj.com/sec-accuses-positron-ceo-of-misleading-investors/PARAMS/article/31020

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Trouble With Nirvana

The road to contentment, to nirvana is a perilous road, fraught with dangers in the ditch on either side. Contentment lies between the white lines, for in the ditch on one side lies addictions, gluttony, and the hollow life of one who floats from one compelling experience to the next in search of a better thing. The other side of the road is not so much a ditch as it is a rut, the place you get stuck when you play it safe and settle for less.

How to keep it between the white lines is the trick. And I’m not talking about happiness. Happiness is way too easy to find. But contentment? Now that’s the hard thing.

Going through old computer files last week I found a letter I wrote in July of 1999 to my sister, Cindy. It was written at Duck Lake in Michigan. I described for Cindy what everyone was doing on that hot summer day and said a thing or two about each person’s personality

Describing my then, 8 year old son, Jack, I wrote to my Cindy:
“Jack works about earnestly to keep up with his big brother. He wants to succeed, to do as well as older kids. But because he’s younger and smaller, of course he can’t, and nobody could ever be as hard on him as he is on himself. Like so many other middle children he’s forever convinced that he’s cheated in things, that others get more of everything. No amount of love or success could ever convince him otherwise. I remember once when you and I were younger, you confided in me with dismay that there is never enough love and kisses to convince you that you are truly loved. I fear Jack will feel that way about the world.”

Finding and rereading that letter was such a pleasant surprise, I shared a copy with each of my children.

Jack, now 6’ tall, 20 years old, and away at college, sent a touching, emotional reply, part of which read:
“I love that description you wrote of me. I still am almost that exact same way. No amount of success or love will ever be good enough. That quality may be my greatest downfall.”

I responded to Jack with one sentence: “People chase gold, money, love, and sex, but contentment is the most rare, precious, and fleeting thing known to man.”

The experts think of Nirvana in varied ways. Some as freedom from suffering, some as transcendence above earthly needs. The word literally means, “blowing out,” as in blowing out the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.” I think of it as contentment, the accepting of what is rather than constantly clamoring for what might be.

It’s amazing how illusive contentment can be and how much of it is guided by our expectations.

It’s a delicate balance. And having everything you want isn’t the answer. Most people dream of fame and fortune, but a study of Hollywood actors and professional athletes reveals a group of people with staggering rates of divorce, substance abuse, and a shorter life span than the average American. Clearly, having everything you want won’t buy contentment, in fact probably makes it harder to see, harder to achieve.

Many philosophers have said it before, but I suspect that contentment, like so many other important qualities in life is not a destination, but a journey – not a place you arrive at, but a thing you juggle.

Recently, an old friend with a lovely home, happy children, and a successful career, but no spouse, shared her deep sadness with me. With her youngest off at college, she confided, “I’m tired of doing this alone.” Yet, I’m sure many in her little town think she’s got it all figured out.

Another friend I truly admire has shared tales of the lost years he spent looking for contentment at the bottom of the bottle. He did drugs with rock stars in San Francisco in the 1960s, owned successful restaurants at a mountain resort, and was married, but eventually destroyed everything he’d built thanks to alcoholism. Today, he runs a small business and makes a modest income, attends church, works out daily, travels as often as he can, and lives a carefully managed, alcohol-free life.

Contentment looks different when you have the extreme opposite to compare it to.

I have known a few people who projected contentment – even claimed to have achieved it, but most really had just perfected the ascetic – that ability to deny themselves pleasure for long stretches, so to enjoy it at precise moments of opportunity. Most of these had not found contentment, but simply had learned to wrestle their desires to a truce. These are the most frozen people I’ve ever known, though they look on the outside anything but frozen. They fear the commitment of choosing and being trapped by the choice and so enjoy pleasures as little vacations. Which is fine with a real vacation. But when deep friendships and intimate relationships are treated like vacations – things isolated from your daily life, enjoyed briefly before returning to your ascetic routine, you end up making a very disciplined, but very lonely, hollow person, because the contentment that comes from the permanence of commitment cannot be substituted by a mountain of temporary experiences. And for these sorts of folk, I fear their ascetic discipline hardwires their fault. Might be easier to change an alcoholic or drug addict.

Oh what a slippery thing contentment . . . nirvana can be.

And of course I’m left thinking of the rock band, Nirvana. Their song "Lithium" is 4 minutes and 17 seconds of churning, surging, screaming, musical nirvana. It’s a song for which there is no volume high enough to satisfy me. With a chugging base line behind him, Kurt Cobain sings the opening lines, “I’m so happy, ‘cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head.”

Perhaps that’s where contentment is for everyone; it’s in our heads.

Cobain was tortured by mental illness, so the reference to Lithium, a drug used to prevent frenzied excitement in manic-depressives is no surprise. Nirvana (the state of mind, not his band) was so out of reach for him that a shotgun in the mouth seemed like a reasonable option. And at least it finally settled once and for all his search for peace and contentment.

So as the years pass, I am more convinced than ever that contentment doesn’t come from having everything you want or from having complete control, but from a mixture of deprivation and comfort, and freedom and commitment, all in their proper measure.

But I haven’t a clue what the proper measure is.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Betty Lou Kyle's Passion For Theater

Betty Lou Kyle is a living legend among Noblesville’s theater community, having directed or acted in 44 local productions in the past 5 decades. She returns after a 6 -year absence from the stage as the director of the Belfry Theater’s next production, The Perfume Shop.

I ate lunch with Betty Lou recently at The Hamilton restaurant and asked her why she returned to the theater after such a long break. In her typical self-deprecating style, she said, “I wanted to stay involved in something - not just play cards,” she chuckled.

She recalled her first local play, The Emperor’s New Clothes, presented in the 1968 in the O. V. Winks building at the 4-H Fairgrounds, before the Belfry’s current location on State Road 38 was even created. It also marked her creation of the Apprentice Players, an annual play staring local children. In addition to directing, she has acted in productions such as Driving Miss Daisy and Little Foxes.

Betty Lou told me about studying drama at Indiana University, where she met her late husband, well-known attorney, John Kyle. Theater was a family affair from that moment on. Both Betty Lou and John were founding members of the Hamilton County Theater Guild and acted in plays there throughout their marriage. Betty Lou laughs, recalling, “John even tied me to the railroad tracks once in the play 10 Nights In A Bar Room.”

All of her children, son John Kyle Jr., and daughters Amy Bradburn and Kathy Abrell appeared in Apprentice Player shows. And coincidentally, her granddaughter, McKenzie Kyle, now a professional actress in Los Angeles performed in a production of The Perfume Shop in Sarasota, Florida recently.

At age 82, being back in the theater with actors, set designers, props people and costumers looking to her for direction is admittedly intimidating, but Betty Lou says the excitement for building a show returned quickly. “Once the actors took the stage for preliminary readings I was drawing energy from them.”

The Perfume Shop is set in early 20th century Hungary during the Christmas holidays and is a light-hearted love story about two bickering co-workers who unknowingly exchange love letters as anonymous pen pals. It was the foundation of the Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan film, You’ve Got Mail.

In a series of coincidences, Betty Lou’s family history at the Belfry is echoed by the experiences of several other families involved in The Perfume Shop, giving the entire production a cozy feeling of close emotional bonds.

Mary Jo Bick, wife of assistant director, Jeff Bick, is the stage manager, and their son Michael is acting in the show. Long-time Belfry actor, Ginny Burt is joined on stage by nieces Anne Auwaerter and Fran Knapp. Gina Beckner and her small children, Emma and Jackson are all sharing their first stage experiences. And Jannette Wiles, a costumer on this production and a Belfry veteran of 37 years, will see her granddaughter, Grace perform in the show.

I stopped by the Belfry on a damp weeknight earlier this week. A scene was being rehearsed on stage. Other actors studied lines in various corners of the theater. Betty Lou and Jeff Bick sat side by side in the theater seats, note pads and play books in their laps, fielding questions from a costumer, then an actor, then they whisper ideas and questions back and forth together while three actors continue their scene on stage. Betty Lou shouts out to one, “Louder, Tom.”

Betty Lou attends to fewer details now than she might have 10 years ago, instead focusing on the actors and the final presentation of the story. Though she is a slight and soft-spoke women, when she begins offering direction to actors, many young enough to be her grandchildren, they fall hushed and focused, respectful of her professional stature and authoritative knowledge of what works on stage and what doesn’t.

Watching Betty Lou orchestrate this close-knit handful of families and Belfry veterans in what is likely her theatrical swan song is stirring. It reminds me of the many giants of this community I’ve been fortunate enough to know over the years, people who have, with passion and inspiration, made it a great place to live.

The Belfry Theater is located on 10690 Greenfield Avenue, just east of State Road 37. The Perfume Shop will run from November 25 to December 11th. Tickets can be reserved at http://www.thebelfrytheatre.com/

Friday, November 4, 2011

We Get The Government We Deserve: Coasting in Noblesville V

We’ve all gotten good lately at listing the things we hate about politicians in Washington. So why do we keep electing John Ditslear as mayor of Noblesville? As an office holder he embodies everything we say we dislike about politicians in Washington – and he does it right here in our town.

Unethical Campaign Financing
We groan about politicians who line their campaign accounts with special-interest money. That’s exactly what John Ditslear does. He holds golf outings, inviting businesses he knows want something from him or his employees.

Last time he ran for office, Ditslear had asked for and gotten over a quarter of a million dollars from city contractors and other entities that want or need city approval. Of that, more than 75% came from people who couldn’t vote for him.

The Indianapolis Star reported last week that a third of campaign funds raised by Indianapolis mayoral candidates, Greg Ballard and Melina Kennedy came from out of town sources. In little ol’ Noblesville, John Ditslear more than doubled that embarrassing figure, then defended it. In a Star article last January, he actually argued, “They [the donors] offer to help me get re-elected because they think I do a good job,” and “I don’t invite people because they do business with the city; I invite people who I think would enjoy a round of golf and a nice meal.”

Why would somebody from Naperville, Illinois (who last year gave Ditslear $1,550) or Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin (who last year gave $500) give a damn how good the mayor of Noblesville, Indiana is? Because they want something.

When was the last time you sent a campaign contribution to the Mayor of Naperville, or Sheboygan Falls?

And it’s actually gotten worse. Since April of this year Ditslear has raised $47,807. Of that, only 8% came from Noblesville voters*. That means 92% of his most recent influx of donor cash came from people who don’t live here, can’t vote here and don’t pay taxes here. That’s 3 times as much as the Indianapolis mayoral candidates.

Such campaign methods are illegal in 7 states and laws are pending to make it illegal in scores more.

Loose With The Facts
We say we hate politicians who spin their meager accomplishments into fantasy resumes. That’s exactly what Mayor Ditslear does.

He recently bragged of bringing 53 businesses to town last year. Look at his list (as I did in last week’s post) and you’ll find businesses that are already out of business, some who simply changed locations, others who only changed their name when bought out, and at least one who downsized because they were struggling, and yet Ditslear claimed it was a new business.

He also claims his Economic Development Department has created 2,200 new jobs in the past 10 years. But I can’t find any proof that this is true. I can only find a list of promised jobs – promises made over the years by corporations that the mayor gave tax breaks to (many are also his out of town campaign contributors). As best I can tell, nobody follows up to see if the promises are kept.

Despite these happy-horse-shit press releases from Ditslear’s City Hall the latest unemployment figures show Noblesville has the highest unemployment rate in the county. Carmel 6.1%, Fishers 5.8%, Hamilton County 6.2%, and Noblesville - 7.8%.

Sweetheart Deals To Insiders & Big Corporations
This past July Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear and his handpicked city council members approved a $7 million corporate welfare package for a company called Positron.

Positron is a Fishers company, so their employees already live nearby and won’t be relocating, the leaders of the company are under a constant cloud of suspicion for illegal activity, their stock value has been below ONE PENNEY! during recent weeks, and Fishers had the good sense to refuse the deal and say, “Go ahead, go to Noblesville. We don’t care.”

Meanwhile, other city projects, facilities, and services are subject to budget cuts.

Bullying and a Sense of Entitlement
We say we hate politicians who intimidate dissenters and feel entitled to their office. But in many ways, that describes John Ditslear’s conduct as mayor.

In 2007 I wrote a series of columns detailing Ditslear’s campaign finances and his successful plan to pack the city council with candidates sympathetic to him. He immediately went to the newspaper I wrote for (The Times) and tried to get me fired as a columnist. The publisher refused, but offered Ditslear equal space to rebut my columns. Ditslear didn’t rebut. He instead used his campaign war chest to fund mailers that accused people like me of “personal attacks,” then he went higher to the paper’s owners and tried again to get me fired as a newspaper columnist.

People told me Ditslear kept saying of my columns, “That’s not the way we do things in Noblesville.” Apparently he thought that being elected entitled him to power without scrutiny.

Sorry John, that’s not how we do things in America.

After the elections he went to a local civic group’s board meeting (whose board I sat on) and tried to get the Times’ publisher, who wouldn’t fire me as a columnist, removed from a city committee.

Petty retribution from a thin-skinned bully.

At that meeting I was more embarrassed for John Ditslear’s conduct than I’ve ever been for a local leader - ever. Every single person in the room lost respect for Ditslear that night.

That publisher – the one Ditslear was trying to blackball from city committees was his current opponent in next week’s election: Mike Corbett.

Mike never told me about Ditslear’s repeated verbal attacks on him for running my columns. I only heard about it from other employees at the paper and local citizens who witnessed them. When I tried to thank Mike for defending me, he brushed the issue aside. He didn’t do it for me. He did it because it was right. And even though Distlear was rude to him beyond imagining, Mike kept offering him equal space in the paper.

That’s because Mike is a gentleman, and a stand-up guy.

When Mike threw his hat in the ring last summer it required that a specified number of registered voters sign a petition on Mike’s behalf. By law, those petitions became public knowledge. After the signatures were verified by the county and Mike became a candidate, Ditslear apparently accessed the list and began harassing people who had signed it. I’m told he called some on the phone and confronted others in public asking why they signed. Most told me they replied something like, “Because I believe in democracy,” or that, “no politician should run unopposed.”

This is a tough time for politicians like John Ditslear. As a mayor he embodies all that offends us about politicians. He employs unethical campaign financing tactics, he inflates his meager successes beyond reason, he’s prone to inexplicably sweet deals with powerful insiders, and he apparently feels entitled to be in power, bullying those who dare question him.

We get the leaders we deserve, and Noblesville deserves better.


*I have not personally evaluated the 4/11-to-present campaign contributions. This particular data came from the web site of Candidate, Mike Corbett.

If you know someone who wants to receive The Contrarian columns, reply to kurtmeyer@talktotucker.com and include their email address. © 2011 by Kurt Meyer

Thursday, October 27, 2011

SPIN CITY: Coasting in Noblesville Part IV

In recent mailers funded by the Republican Party, Mayor John Ditslear crows about having brought 53 new businesses to Noblesville last year. Like so many of the fluffy, feel-good numbers that accompany City Hall press releases, the numbers just don’t add up.

What’s more, the numbers are presented, in this time of concern about unemployment, as if they’re proof of somebody really taking care of business – though many of the line-items on the list represent no new jobs and many of the jobs that are real are something no town would brag about. And the numbers are so blatantly spun, you’d think Distlear’s City Hall believes they could say just about anything and get away with it.


The list of 53 new businesses starts out shaky when you notice the 4 seasonal businesses – Halloween City and 3 locations of USA Fireworks. If you count new businesses like I do, 3 locations of one business, and 1 Halloween shop, all of which were only open approximately a month doesn’t strike me as solid, new job-creating businesses.


Ditslear’s nose starts to grow when he lists businesses already out of business. So he’s taking credit for bringing businesses to town that were history by the time he was bragging about it. That would include places like Burrito Joe’s and Martin Jay’s Butcher Shop.


And the Mayor outright fibs when he lists businesses that were already here. PNC Bank is listed as a new business, but they simply bought out National City. Take down the old sign, put up a new sign, and like magic - a new business located in Noblesville. And Aspire Indiana just moved from Cumberland Road to 150th Street, both in Noblesville, but they too magically count as a new business. I found another on the list, actually a client of mine who’s been doing business in town for years. They changed locations last year, and they also make the list as a new business.


And Mayor Ditslear’s pants catch on fire when he names Donato’s Pizza as a new operation. Donato’s is a minimum wage employer who has been here for years but was struggling in their stand-alone restaurant location in front of Wal-Mart, so they downsized to a much smaller, primarily delivery/pickup location. Still, in the City Hall spin-zone, they get counted as a new business.


That’s how bad news gets spun as good news by the Ditslear campaign. When you’re coasting downhill, hands laced behind your head – feet crossed on the handlebars, you’ve gotta spin pretty hard to create the impression of actually accomplishing something.


Did any of our local newspaper outlets like The Times point this out to their readers? Nope. They just keep dutifully printing city hall press releases.


Then there are the out of town employers who truly did establish new businesses, but only brought minimum-wage jobs to town. In fact, a majority of the list are retail or medical service providers who are primarily minimum wage or low wage job creators.


And an even deeper look reveals yet more to be disappointed with. Fuzziwig’s Candy Factory makes the list, but they’re no factory. They’re a retail candy store at Hamilton Town Center – and a minimum wage employer. That mall is in a Tax Increment Financing district (TIF), which means any new property taxes paid for that location don’t help fund schools, police, libraries, etc. for years into the future. Instead the new tax base gets skimmed off by the city to pay for the infrastructure we taxpayers built out there to lure these minimum wage employers to town. So we get a new candy store, minimum wage jobs, and no tax-base help in paying for city services.


Impressed by Mayor Ditslear’s phony list?


Me neither.


Hey, times are tough. Lots of cities all over the state are struggling. So why would you fabricate fantasy lists and peddle ho-hum accomplishments as a gold medal performance? You do it because you think nobody will notice. You think that you can say what works, cut the ribbon at the opening, smile for the cameras, and nobody will know the truth.


But sadly, even that isn’t where the Mayor’s bogus job creation numbers end. Lately he’s been bragging about the City’s Economic Development Department generating 2,200 new jobs in the past 10 years. Problem is, I can’t find proof of how many jobs were actually created.


As best I can figure the Mayor gets that 2,200 number from the City’s Tax Abatement Ledger – a list of the businesses he gave tax breaks to for agreeing to come here or stay here or just buy new equipment. The ledger is a projected tally of jobs the businesses originally claimed they would bring to town. It appears there is no follow-up done to verify those jobs actually were created.


That’s a little odd, because we can verify without a shadow of a doubt that the businesses got the tax break. When was the last time you paid for a product but never looked to see if you actually received it? Well, it appears that’s exactly what Ditslear’s City Hall has been doing. And then bragging about it.


I don’t know about the rest of you, but my patience with Washington politicians who peddle false numbers is wearing pretty thin. And when it’s done by a politician in my own town with a smile and a handshake, I will not forgive it when I vote.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Claremont via Ashville

Look for the next edition of the "Coasting in Noblesville" series on Thursday. Taking a brief detour.


Monday the 24th:
When a Realtor goes on vacation, it’s never entirely a vacation. In the first two hours out of Noblesville this morning, the phone rang often enough that I found myself at a grocery store Starbucks in Cincinnati doing a little house research and sending a quick flurry of emails.

Back on the road, between the white lines.

In northern Kentucky, trees in dull, muted colors stand atop the sharp edges of gray limestone cliffs that rise up at either side of the road. But between Lexington and Knoxville the trees explode in a firestorm of reds, oranges and yellows. The boulders amid the rock walls here are rounded and yellow. A natural spring trickles out of a hundred foot tall stone wall, splattering onto the right lane. A truck mists it across my windshield.

Soon the road falls back into lowlands along a lake and then a river. I do not know their names.

My iPhone, in a can koozy on the dash bleeps a calendar alert. I peek and notice it’s reminding me today is someone’s birthday. I recall typing that into my phone earlier in the year, even then with a clear idea of the gift I would give. But the calendar alert might as well be a phantom limb. The gift was not given. Was this friend an emotional bulimic – someone who binges upon, then purges intimate relationships?

I notice David Bowie’s Heroes is alight on the Sirius Radio readout. I punch the On button and flip the volume to max, letting Bowie blast the dark vibe out the window.

But I quickly switch back to Ryan Adams’ new album of stripped down guitars and piano. It’s turned out to be the perfect soundtrack for this trip among the turning leaves and winding highways. I’m coincidentally heading toward Ryan Adams territory – North Carolina. I won’t go as far as his hometown, the melancholy subject of his song Jacksonville Skyline. I’ll stop just past Hickory.

Mid-afternoon I am in that picturesque, snaking, seemingly endless gorge that connects Gatlinburg to Ashville. At times the slate walls, dotted with pine stubble, rise so high they nearly block out the perfect blue sky. Clouds of leaves fall from trees along the ridges and swirl in mini-tornados just above the asphalt. The silver Mercedes ahead pierces the vortex and leaves the scatter across my windshield.

I’ve never made this drive down 40 alone. I stop for gas at a small cluster of buildings in the darkest, most wooded depths of the gorge and realize I’ve stopped at this very gas station before, perhaps a dozen years ago with my wife and kids when we were headed for Blowing Rock. I recall being in the parking lot with them, hustling the kids out of and back into the car.

They are not kids anymore; one is in Japan, another is at college, and the youngest is a high school junior. And their mother and I are separated.

Late afternoon I stop at a coffee shop in Ashville just down the street from the Biltmore. I sit outdoors, drinking tea with honey on this priceless autumn day among college kids and aging hippies. This beautiful town is in its evening rush hour. A train passes beyond a line of trees. At the table next to mine a pretty young girl and an elderly woman sip at bottles of blackberry Izze soda and dote over a German shepherd drowsing on the bricks between them.

I text Shari my location so she’ll know I’m getting near, “Sipping tea in Ashville.”

She responds, “Lucky Duck.”

For months Shari noticed my melancholy postings on Facebook and finally offered, “Why don’t you come down here and stay with us for a week? You can have a room upstairs and just spend your time writing.”

I’ve never taken that luxury in all my years of writing. Men who golf or fish gladly go off for a week to enjoy it. But most of my writing has been done in stolen moments. Ideas frantically jotted down on the back of a muffler shop receipt while at a stop light get typed up before bed that night. For an hour at lunch or a couple hours after dinner in the evening I’ll sit with my laptop and organize my thoughts. Not sure if I can do it a whole week. But I’m willing to try.

I arrive at Shari’s little farm at the edge of this tiny town. We eat gumbo and talk until late, catching up.

Tuesday the 25th:
This morning I sat with her at the “back table” at the local café with an assortment of old men. The place has a low ceiling and wood-grained paneling. With a plate of eggs and grits before me, Sam, a round-faced man in overalls says, “You know, Shari’s the prettiest smart girl in town.” I’m tempted to take the bait and ask where she fits in among women of a broader range of I.Q., but Shari beats me to it. Sam smiles but does not respond.

He tells me that though he quit drinking 15 years ago, he’s going to drink some peach-brandy next year on his 85th birthday. Shari pats the table in front of me, “Ya know he’s talkin’ ‘bout moonshine.” Sam is defensive, “But it’s made with real peaches!”

I’m desperately seeking a wifi signal. Eventually we’re sitting at the only coffee shop in town. I crack open my laptop, deal with a property inspection at home and respond to a short list of business emails. Shari gives me a get a quick tour of town.

By afternoon I find myself on her back deck with my laptop computer and finally, here, I am writing. Shari is upstairs writing, too. She actually earns a living at it. She reappears occasionally to tell me a story or listen to one of mine, or just sit in the metal swing rocker and talk to her boyfriend on her blackberry.

She and I were teenagers once. We looked out for each other.

It’s another perfect autumn day. The leaves are just now starting to fall here. They land on my keyboard. The wooded lawn falls away from the deck toward a red barn, perhaps 40 yards away. Shari’s horse appears and then disappears from behind the barn, grazing in the brilliant sunlight. I write a little, then stop to read from among Shari’s stories published in the stack of magazines beside me, then write a little more.

And so here I have written 1,100 words and it is 5:00. Have I earned the right to run to the grocery store and buy a lemon for my gin and tonic?

I think so. It’s vacation after al

Monday, October 10, 2011

Coasting in Noblesville III: Ditslear's Corporate Welfare

This past July Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear and his handpicked city council members approved a $7 million corporate welfare package for a company called Positron. It’s possible this may turn out to be the most foolhardy waste of taxpayer dollars in Noblesville history.


It’s what happens when you’re coasting, not paying attention to details, enjoying calling the shots and living the VIP treatment, rather than doing the hard work of actually managing a city like Noblesville.


Note: The Positron deal is not a tax abatement. It’s a $7 million handout.


Positron is an often troubled, Fishers, Indiana company that specializes in nuclear-related medical products. They asked Fishers for the same sweet deal to simply stay put, but Fishers wisely refused. Ditslear said yes, so Positron will move across 146th St and into our corporate campus. Considering we start out $7 million in the hole, it’s hard to figure out what the value is for Noblesville.


Positron’s employees already live in the area, so it’s unlikely they’ll sell their homes and move a few miles to Noblesville. So this isn’t likely to have much impact on Noblesville’s employment rate. And Positron will be locating in the new Corporate Campus, where the city will create a special TIF district just for them. A TIF district is an area where, for a decade or more into the future, property taxes from new development DON’T help pay for schools, roads, libraries, police or the fire department. Those new tax dollars are skimmed off to help pay for the infrastructure in the district. In this case it will be skimmed off to pay the debt on the bond being floated to create the handout to Positron in the first place. So any taxing benefit for Noblesville won’t be realized for many, many years. In the meantime the rest of us will subsidize the cost of the city services Positron uses.


But there are even more reasons to wonder what Mayor Ditslear was thinking when he put Noblesville taxpayers on the hook for $7 million on behalf of Positron.


I’ve been corresponding with a former Positron stockholder from Michigan. He asked that I not use his name, so I’ll call him Jeff. In May of 2010 Jeff says he lost $22,000 of his retirement fund in what he says may have been stock value manipulation of Positron stock. He’s asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate.


Jeff says there was more stock value shenanigans this past May in what appeared to be a “pump-and-dump” operation involving Positron stock. Pump-and-dump is a scheme in which a company’s stock is artificially inflated through false or misleading statements by company leaders or others in related positions of influence, and then when the value goes up, those with large stock holdings sell their stock at great profit. This causes the stock to fall dramatically, usually destroying value for innocent investors not aware of the scheme. That’s why it’s illegal.


Jeff told me, “I wasn't able to turn up any proof that Patrick Rooney (Positron’s Chairman) or anyone with Positron was directly involved with a pump-and-dump. Yet, he (Rooney) was front-and-center during all these events. His words and actions caused the stock to crash.”


The result of the “crash” in stock value: Mayor Ditslear is giving a $7 million handout to a company with a stock value of just pennies - literally, pennies.


And stockholders like Jeff have good circumstantial reasons to worry who might have been involved in the stock value games. According to research by Wall Street guru and blogger Timothy Sykes, Positron’s Chairman, Patrick G. Rooney has faced accusations of securities fraud and insider trading. Rooney’s father was convicted of an income tax charge and paid a $1 million fine to settle an insider trading charge. What’s more, according to Sykes, Rooney’s brother, John was, “an investor in Positron and until they were accused of securities fraud, their hedge fund was a 10%+ owner of Positron.”


Timothy Sykes wrote this about Positron on his blog in April of last year, “The Company’s current financial condition raises doubt as to its ability to continue as a going concern.” That’s because Positron doesn’t have a very good track record of earning a profit or staying out of debt.


Positron’s trading abbreviation is POSC. Some stock traders who follow Positron have mocked its abbreviation as meaning, “Piece of Shit Company.”


But thanks to Mayor John Ditslear, Noblesville will borrow money on behalf of taxpayers like you and me and give it – not loan – but GIVE IT! to Positron.


This is the sort of thing that makes more sense to Mayor Ditslear than investing in a meaningful way in redevelopment in downtown Noblesville. He’s not floating a bond issue to build a theater or a desperately needed parking garage, seed redevelopment just west of the river, or execute the Downtown Strategic Development Plan (that currently sits on a shelf gathering dust), all things that would nurture small business owners who live right here and keep their profits right here.


What’s more, it sets a precedent. Every company planning to locate in central Indiana no doubt now has hopes of strong-arming Noblesville into a corporate welfare package of their own.


This raises other questions about how Noblesville’s Economic Development Departments operates. In August 2008 Ditslear hired Judi Johnson to be Assistant Economic Development Director. She is, coincidentally, the Mayor’s wife’s good friend, and the wife of City Councilman (and Ditslear’s close friend) Roy Johnson. Just a year later, Ditslear fired Kevin Kelly, the department’s director and Judi Johnson’s boss. Since that time, the Mayor has never filled the director’s position, leaving Johnson the de-facto leader.


Who knows if this “nepotism-lite” and/or the empty director position is responsible for the bad Positron deal, but both are certainly signs of hubris on the Mayor’s part, giving the impression that he feels he can do pretty much whatever he wants to do. And in truth is, he can. Voters have rewarded him by allowing him to pack the City Council with his friends and favored candidates. The 4 yes votes for Positron were Ditslear’s handpicked candidates. Next January, 2 more Ditslear-favored candidates will take office, giving him a vise-grip lock on power.


Noblesville can’t even claim to have a good ‘ol boys network running the town anymore. Instead we’ve got a private, exclusive men’s club running things and the Mayor is their BMOC.


But there is another candidate for Mayor of Noblesville. His name is Mike Corbett and I believe he has the energy and intellectual curiosity required to see past the foolishness of schemes like the Positron handout and instead focus Noblesville’s dollars and energy behind efforts that will actually improve our quality of life.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Coasting In Noblesville II: A Tale of 2 Delis

In last week’s post I wrote that Noblesville is a pretty damn good city, but not a great city. We could be, but we’re not. What’s required to make that leap is visionary leadership; something we desperately lack. To understand what I mean, consider the story of one former local business.


When Brian and Shelly Jordon opened the Logan Street Marketplace in downtown Noblesville back in 2006, the pasta salads, homemade soups, Paninis and stellar deserts were a welcome addition to the courthouse square. Like many hopeful small business owners, the Jordans opened on a shoestring budget. They used their own savings, worked long hours at little pay, and dreamed that the business would grow and one day they could upgrade their seating and décor and perhaps open a larger restaurant.


Their dream came true, but not in Noblesville. Their Logan Street shop closed earlier this year. But they do have a thriving deli, filled each day with happy customers. It’s in downtown Carmel, called the Blu Moon Café.


The Jordans’ frustrations in Noblesville and success in Carmel isn’t just a story about hardworking business owners who win a few - lose a few, it’s also a story about what dynamic, visionary political leadership can nurture and what a lack of it can squander. The staggering contrast between what the Jordan’s businesses experienced in Noblesville vs. Carmel should dishearten anyone who wants Noblesville’s downtown to thrive.


Back in ‘06, no sooner was the Jordan’s Noblesville location up and running when Carmel’s downtown developer, Pedcor, came knocking on their door, encouraging them to come to Carmel. The Jordans considered the offer and did their homework. But the Jordans and their young son live just two blocks from the courthouse square. Their hearts were behind Noblesville’s success.


Shelly Jordan says, “I asked Noblesville’s Economic Development Department why they don’t go to small businesses in other areas and encourage them to come here and was told simply, ‘we don’t do that.’”


She was mystified.


Carmel leaders seemed to understand the synergy that could be created by combining many complementary businesses. Noblesville leaders either didn’t understand at all or it wasn’t a priority.


Years ago Camel partnered with Pedcor to redevelop their downtown and the success has been breathtaking. In barely a decade they’ve gone from having no meaningful downtown, to having a downtown far larger, more diverse, and dramatically more economically successful than Noblesville’s. And they’ve done it by shunning the big chain outlets and nurturing small business owners like the Jordans – the kind of businesses who keep their profits local rather than sending them to corporate headquarters elsewhere.


At the same time, Noblesville kept squandering its resources.


On a Saturday in 2008 the heated presidential primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama brought voters to the courthouse square for early voting. That sunny spring day the Jordan’s Marketplace had its best sales day ever in Noblesville. The courthouse square was full of people who wandered into their deli for a sandwich.


The Jordans understood the square could be like that every Saturday morning, spring through fall if the Farmer’s Market, which was originally created to help downtown merchants like them, was actually held on the courthouse square instead of being staged like a highway flea market on State Road 32.


A group of merchants began lobbying to move the market to the square and scheduled a meeting with Mayor John Ditslear. According to the former owner of The Wild bookstore, Jane Mills, “The meeting with Mayor Ditslear was awful. All of the small business people who attended were made to feel unwelcome and there was really no discussion. Ditslear opened the meeting by explaining why the Farmer’s Market couldn’t be moved to the square. He just shut us down.”


Tired of fighting the battle of retail on the square, Jane Mills eventually sold her bookstore.

And Carmel? Unlike Noblesville they hold their Saturday Farmer’s Market in the heart of their downtown. The Jordans, who eventually took Pedcor up on their offer to open a Carmel store, do a brisk Saturday business there, unlike their typical Saturday experience in Noblesville.


In the past year there has been a movement in Noblesville lobbying to build a theater downtown; perfect timing because the long-successful local Belfry theater group is considering a new location. Imagine the courthouse square with 100- 200 theater goers coming for Friday and Saturday shows and weekend matinees. The restaurants and shops would benefit greatly from the synergy and we’d have a reenergized square. Wanna guess who’s standing in the way and explaining why it can’t be done? Yep: Mayor John Ditslear. He’s claimed the time isn’t right, that budgets are too tight.


So as Noblesville’s leadership is coasting, happy with small initiatives and small thinking, downtown Carmel business owners like the Jordans enjoy the financial benefits of Carmel’s new Palladium theater.


One might well ask why any city government should be in the business of building theaters or facilitating farmers markets. The simply answer is they already assist businesses in other far more expensive ways - it’s standard procedure. Noblesville has already spent over $200 million on a corporate campus, and in just the past month Mayor Ditslear GAVE a company named Positron $7 million just to locate here. Again, that wasn’t a tax abatement, it was a $7 million gift to a company whose highly paid employees already live in the Fishers area, so likely won’t be moving to Noblesville – a company that has never turned a profit and has a stock value of just a few pennies.


It’s heartbreaking to think what that $7 million could have done for redevelopment in Noblesville’s downtown. It could have built a parking garage or a theater and funded the logistics of a downtown farmers market for decades – and nurtured the hard work of small business owners in the process.


I have no desire for Noblesville to be Carmel. We don’t need a theater as pretentious as the Paladium or a thoroughfare as hellishly expensive as Keystone Ave. But we could sure learn a lesson or two from a city with dynamic leadership. That’s because Noblesville is coasting with lazy, visionless leadership. We’re lead by a Mayor and his handpicked city council that as best as I can tell are pretty satisfied with simply being in charge and enjoying the VIP treatment. They seem to have no clue about how to make Noblesville a truly great city.


Meanwhile, Brian and Shelly Jordan still live two blocks from Noblesville’s courthouse square, but Shelly drives to work in Carmel each morning – along with her former Noblesville employees who now work with her in Carmel. Due to weak business, their Logan Street location is a memory while their Blu Moon Cafe flourishes in downtown Carmel.


Shelly Jordan told me, “A good day in Noblesville was 50 customers. A bad day in Carmel is 150.” They had to add a 2nd cash register to handle the lunchtime rush in Carmel. And they’re essentially selling the exact same product there that they once sold here.


And Shelly sheepishly confided, “When we go out in the evening for dinner, we don’t stay in Noblesville, we go to Carmel.”


Obviously, that’s not the way she wants it to be, but it’s where the action is.


Next week we’ll take a closer look at the foolhardy Positron deal – the one in which Mayor Ditslear paid a highly questionable company $7 million to simply move north across 146th St. to locate in Noblesville.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Coasting in Noblesville: "We're #50!"

The accolades began back in 2006 when Noblesville was twice named one of the best places to live in America. What bugged me then and bugs me still is seeing local politicians patting themselves on the back as if the job is done.

And again last month Noblesville was named by Money Magazine as the 50th best place to live in America.


It’s true; Noblesville is a pretty damn good place to live. Could it cease being a pretty damn good place? Yes, if our leaders don’t act with vision now and peddle a little harder. Is Noblesville great? No. Could it be great? Yes, with the right vision and planning.


And I think that’s the true reality we should be facing. If we rest, self satisfied with what’s been accomplished in the past – some of it done 10-20 years ago, we could end up a pretty unremarkable place in another 5 or 10 years. If we had creative leadership with vision we could even be a truly great town.


But the truth is, we’re already coasting. We have a cozy, narrow clique of elected leaders too busy patting themselves on the back and enjoying to VIP treatment to do dynamic things to secure Noblesville’s future. They’re cruising happily downhill with the wind in their face, with little thought to the mountains to be climbed in the future or the projects that could be tackled now to make us truly great.


A staggering reality is that should we become a truly great town, we wouldn’t make those lists of great places to live anymore. Sound backwards? Let me explain.


One of the negatives about living here – even back in 2006 when local real estate was booming, helped us earn those initial accolades. That negative: very low home value appreciation rates.


In the summer of 2006 Bert Sperling published his book, “Best Places to Raise Your Family: The Top 100 Most Affordable Communities in the U.S.” In it Noblesville ranked 10th. Then BusinessWeek.com named Noblesville one of the 25 best suburbs in the nation using data from Bert Sperling’s web site.


So essentially, one data draw produced both, seemingly independent recognitions.


Sperling noticed our great schools, low unemployment rate and low crime rate. But the major factor that got us noticed was our affordable housing. Note Sperling didn’t rank us among the “Coolest Communities,” or the ones with the “Highest Quality of Life,” but among the “Most Affordable” communities.


Sperling looked at the economics of buying a house here, but never looked at the economics of owning one. The reality, even back in the boom days of ‘06 was at odds with the happy image Sperling and Business Week painted.


Why was housing so affordable here? Out of control growth in the form of rapid new home construction. Having too many homes on the market depressed property values. So homeownership here was a poorer investment than in many America towns that weren’t named great places to live.


It’s basic supply and demand. Always more houses than buyers. Why would someone buy your five, ten or twenty year old home when there was a myriad of builders offering new equivalents all over town with competitive incentives? This hyper-competition forced sellers to take less for their existing homes.


And for that we were patted on the back for being an affordable community. It’s very possible that we wouldn’t have even made the Sperling list, and therefore not the Business Week list if not for this unpleasant reality.


Then came the economic downturn. The already affordable housing in Noblesville became even more affordable. As a Realtor I spend my days working with sellers who are losing their shirts – or even their entire home, not just because the economy got bad, but because they live in a town where growth was allowed to explode right before the downturn, where leaders lacked the vision and insight to ask, “How much growth is best for our community?” The blind, pro-growth view argues that that no amount is too much.


You’d think Noblesville leaders would have learned something in the past several years. No. Yet another designation as a great place to live has them congratulating themselves and dreaming of a return of the salad days of 2006. They’ve been laying the groundwork for Noblesville to grow into Wayne Township when the economy comes back. Who’s been subsidizing the roundabouts, fire stations, and sewer line extensions into empty land east of town in pursuit of this dream? Taxpayers like you and me.


None of that changes the fact Noblesville is a damn good place to live. We have great schools, low crime, historic architecture, low unemployment, and something no study can quantify: great people. But let’s not kid ourselves or let our elected leaders fool us about what the Sperling, Business Week, and Money Magazine ratings really mean. Let’s not get lulled into coasting, as if we’ve done all there is to do. We haven’t. Not even close.


Anyone who travels off the Interstate routes knows that many if not most Indiana’s small towns are a shadow of their former selves. Compared to them, we’re in great shape. But I’m not very interested in comparing us to Mooresville or Huntington.


Anyone who travels across the country and visits truly great small towns knows that while we’re pretty damn good, we’re not great. We could be, but we’re not. Most of the truly great towns didn’t make the magazine lists because they’re so great, everybody near them wants to live there. But their leaders aren't itching to approve every vinyl village proposed by a developer. This drives up their property values a little, which gives them a huge negative ding on the grading lists of great towns because they’re less affordable. I’d rather be comparing Noblesville to those places.


And that’s expresses the problem with visionless leadership – leaders who see everything in black and white, colorblind to the important nuance of shades and hues that define the difference between good and great, the difference between growth and quality of life.


And a couple important things for us to think hard about while we’re twisting our arms patting ourselves on the back: Fishers and Carmel didn’t make the 2011 Money Magazine list because they only looked at towns with under 50,000 people. Last year they look at towns over that threshold and Fishers and Carmel made the list while we didn’t. Also, our westerly neighbor, Westfield ranked 48th on the Money Magazine list – two spots ahead of Noblesville. Next time you’re driving through Westfield, take a look around and see if you can figure out how the hell that happened.


Over the next several weeks, I’ll focus on what Noblesville could do to be a truly great community and how visionless leadership is squandering resources and opportunities.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Performing The Coda

Coda: A few measures added beyond the natural termination of a musical composition.

While I waited for Murphy’s daughter to arrive I walked around the exterior of the house taking notes. After making a loop of the yard and ending back at the front step, I recalled a snowy Saturday a few years ago when two friends and I came over and shoveled Murphy’s front walk so he could get out and about.


When his daughter arrived we went inside. It was like Murphy might be home any moment. His magazines were in a neat stack. His clothes in the closet. The remote control sat on the coffee table before the TV.


It is an odd thing to walk the rooms of an old friend’s house after they’ve passed, trying to estimate its value. This is the place where Murphy and his wife raised their children, where he came home from work everyday for decades, where he cared for his wife as she was dying, where he aged alone in his 80s.


He was born black in a time of segregation, lived in this neighborhood for 88 years. He served in WWII, set type for printing presses, served on the City Council, sold insurance, and lived to see a black man elected president of the United States.


A photo of President Obama hangs on the same walls that hold framed newspaper clippings and awards that span Murphy’s 88 years.


And it has all come to this just a few months after this lovely man died; me walking the rooms of his house trying to figure out what the place it worth. In this way, I’m the coda – the final notes beyond the piece of music that has ended.


The guy who taught me this business was Dale.


The last time I saw Dale was at Murphy’s funeral in May. He was supposed to speak but wasn’t feeling up to it. The cancer was taking its toll. I sought him out and said hello. That brief moment of small talk in a noisy room filled with people would be our last conversation.


We sold real estate together for 8 years. He was generous to my family beyond imaging. But Dale and I were relentlessly on opposing sides of civic and political events. He hurt my feelings. I hurt his. But when I saw his white hair and broad shoulders above the crowd at Randal and Roberts Funeral Home, I sought him out to show him the respect I felt for him.


Sitting at his funeral just a couple months later listening to stories about his life, I thought back to one of my own stories about Dale’s generosity.


I had a listing owned by an elderly woman. Dale announced one day he had the perfect buyer. I rolled my eyes when I found out it was someone he’d bailed out of jail (Dale was a bail bondsman, too). But he got his buyer pre-approved and my seller accepted their offer.


Immediately Dale discovered the buyers didn’t have enough money for their loan application. He told the lender to take it out of his own commission at closing. The appraiser demanded that the peeling paint on the eaves and trim be scraped and repainted. My seller had no money to do it. So Dale delivered his own ladders, paint brushes and paint he bought himself to the house and told his buyers, “If you want the house you’ll have to paint it.” They did.


There were other fees his buyers couldn’t pay, like a gas company deposit. He paid them all or arranged for it to be taken from his commission. At the closing he joked and told stories as usual and was eventually handed a very, very small commission check. He walked out of that closing spinning his key ring on a finger and whistling a tune. You’d have never known he’d just got paid near nothing for a hell of a lot of work.


He’d given a break to somebody who needed a break, a gesture he would brush off as unimportant if you complimented him for it.


A couple weeks ago my phone range while I ate lunch with Stacy at Noble Coffee. I stepped into the tearoom for privacy. It was an attorney I didn’t know. She said a deceased client of hers had identified me in her end-of-life planning documents as the Realtor who should list and sell her house. She gave me a name I didn’t recognize. She read off the address and I mentally walked down that street until I realized it was Sandi. The last name had thrown me off. I forgot she had remarried in the decade since she disappeared from my circle of acquaintances.


A few days later I was meeting that attorney, standing on the back porch of that familiar house for the first time in years. Distant memories flooded my mind.


Before I was a Realtor, when my wife and I had small children and were living on one teacher’s salary Sandi had noticed we were struggling. Earlier that year she’d seen a friend and me strip two old houses of their aluminum siding. She asked me what I got for recycling it. “$500 apiece,” I told her. So as she began renovations on this house, she asked me if I wanted the aluminum siding. “Sure,” I told her. I figured I would be removing it myself, but I got a call one day from Sandi saying her construction crew had removed it all and stacked it in the yard for me.


Walking through the house I noticed a cabinet my wife had refinished for Sandi. I saw porch columns I’d salvaged from a Victorian-era home at 8th and Cherry and sold to her. She used them to decorate her bedroom. I recalled the Christmas vacation she did me another favor, hiring me to strip the woodwork in the upstairs bathroom.


And when I became a Realtor, she hired me. In one of my last conversations with her, almost 10 years ago, we sat in the dining room and went through legal documents to sell another property of hers.


It has been a sad summer for a lot of reasons. Especially sad that three friends, mentors . . . people I looked up to when I was a young adult and new to Noblesville have all passed in a single season. But there’s also a feeling of purpose to play a bit of the coda in their lives, those random notes at the end of the piece of music they lived.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Formula Foul

Lately I’ve been pondering the easy way we sometimes cast judgment.


We do it so often it’s a reflex. You see a recognizable dispute playing out, feelings hurt, conflict escalating, be it political, interpersonal, work-related, whatever, and when the players involved take on a sympathetic shape and their actions resonate emotionally our biases quickly tell us who’s to blame and who’s the victim.


And we’ll hang onto that even if we’re completely wrong.


All this came to mind recently while I watched an NBA playoff game with my 20-year-old son and became frustrated anew with the “formula fouls.” The formula foul is a term I conjured years ago for lazy, reflexive foul calls in the NBA.


Sometimes fouls are called because a foul was actually committed. But nearly as often fouls are called simply because of who moved at a certain moment while someone else moved nearby. That’s how a hard elbow to the chest amid a complicated scrum under the basket isn’t a foul, but a defender’s pinky grazing a shooter’s wrist out along the three-point arc IS. Why? Because that hand to hand combat under the basket takes thought to decipher – though it has real impact on events. The pinky grazing the shooters wrist is easy to see and understand, so though it has little impact on the moment, the whistle blows.


A series of formulas, like recognizable dance steps are agreed to be fouls in the culture of NBA referees.


And once the whistle blows the defender is incredulous. He won’t raise his hand to accept the call in the old tradition of the game so scorekeepers can keep track of foul tallies. He argues with the ref as if he thinks he could elicit a reversal of the judgment. But that ain’t gonna happen. Never does.


We’re all referees everyday of our lives and we all call our fair share of formula fouls. Our biases regarding who’s at fault in moments of trauma can be so deeply engrained we question them as little as we question the sensations of hot and cold. They just are what they are.


If there’s conflict between a man and a woman, most of us have an inkling who’s at fault before we even know the facts. And we’ll look for facts to confirm our bias and ignore the ones that don’t. If it’s a white, English-speaking citizen vs. an dark-skinned immigrant with an accent, a boss vs. an employee, a senior citizen vs. a teenager, a well-dressed businessman vs. a homeless bum in tattered clothes, in moments of conflict we quickly I.D. the victim and the perpetrator. And it doesn’t matter if there’s no victim at all, but just a couple people struggling with the complexities of life. When the shit goes down, we look to hug one and point a finger at the other.


True as that may be, a friend reminded me recently that if we’re going to enjoy any peace in life perhaps we have to find the grace to relinquish our fate to the overwhelming power of bias.


On a recent evening I sat in my friend’s living room drinking beer. Bill and his wife and I chatted about music, writing, books, and politics. After his wife went to bed we drank another beer, then sipped some scotch.


At some point I turned to my familiar gripes. My complaints about the formula fouls called on me in the drama of my personal life began to roll off my tongue in their familiar rhythmic cadence. Bill crossed his legs, folded his arms across his chest and fixed a stare on me that parents save for a come-to-Jesus-moment with a petulant child.


He looked me hard in the eye and said flatly, “Kurt, you’re a prideful person, and you’re gonna have to let go of some of that.”


It was like he’d thrown a firecracker in my face. My ears rang a bit from the concussion.


Bill went on, “You’re clutching your pride to your chest while people are trying to tear it away from you. But you need to let go. Let them take it. And let them go, too. Make something else of yourself in its place. Reinvent yourself. Let go!”


In moments like this two familiar traits emerge in me: 1) I have an impeccable ear for recognizing good advice when I hear it, and 2) a stubborn habit of ignoring it.


But I am trying to do better. Failing sometimes, but trying.


I know Bill is right. When you can’t change the outcome of the judgment it doesn’t matter how the blame is laid. Maybe it only matters how you take it.


I know I need to learn to raise my hand and take the formula foul calls in my own life with a greater measure of acceptance. There are people keeping score and I can’t stop that and people passing judgments that I can never reverse. I need to stop arguing with the referees in my life, need to let them tally, and let them go, and reinvent that part of me.