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 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.