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.

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