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.

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