By Kurt Christian from the Herald Times
As John Hamilton enters his fourth year as mayor of Bloomington, this year’s municipal elections will reflect whether he’s delivered on his promise to “say what we’ll do and do what we say.”
Hamilton has used that Dr. Seuss reference as a refrain since his inauguration remarks in 2016, when he said his administration would be efficient, transparent and have better citizen engagement than prior administrations.
He immediately set the standard for his mantra by listing Bloomington’s jobs and economy, affordable housing, public education and innovative government as top priorities.
“I ran for office because I felt like Bloomington had opportunities ahead of it, challenges in front of it, that needed to be met,” Hamilton said this week. “We’re in a better shape today than we were three years ago.”
But for all the advances Hamilton’s administration claims in those endeavors, there have been missteps to balance the scales along the way.
A failed annexation attempt, strained intergovernmental relationships, a lack of transparency surrounding the purchase of an armored vehicle — and more.
‘String of Pearls’
One of the most readily available demonstrations of what the Hamilton administration has focused on — and seized upon repeatedly in public remarks — is what Hamilton calls the city’s ‘String of Pearls.’
Hamilton gave that name to four major landmarks along the city’s B-Line trail: the Trades District, the Monroe Convention Center, the IU Health Bloomington Hospital property and Switchyard Park.
The 12-acre portion of the city’s technology park, called the Trades District, predates the current administration. But it wasn’t until March 2018 that Hamilton and other community leaders broke ground on the city’s technology hub.
The journey to that milestone included the district’s first dedicated private investor, construction of the Trade’s District’s new affordable housing, the renovation and launch of The Mill, regional partnerships with Indianapolis and Columbus and more.
“That’s a huge step into the new economy for us, and that’s really important for a place that doesn’t make color televisions or elevators or refrigerators anymore,” Hamilton said of the city’s past manufacturing giants — RCA, Otis Elevator and GE.
Hamilton inherited an uncertain future for the IU Health Bloomington Hospital’s 24-acre campus. As the hospital’s plans to partner with Indiana University to relocate the hospital to the Ind. 45/46 Bypass materialized, Hamilton counted the city lucky. That good fortune carried over, and early last year, hospital officials agreed to sell the current hospital property to the city at a deep discount.
“We’ve seen cities where the departure of a hospital from a downtown site was very destructive and expensive and a drag on the city locations around it for many years, even decades. I was very concerned about that,” Hamilton said.
City officials negotiated a $6.5 million purchase price for a clear site scrubbed of environmental hazards. The Hamilton administration has since contracted with a nonprofit urban planning institute and interviewed master developers to bring plans for new housing, offices and community space to life.
Another inherited project more than a decade in the making is expected to become a reality the same month as the fall election: the $34 million, 58-acre Switchyard Park.
“What I inherited was the responsibility to execute, listen and make sure we’re doing it as well as we can,” Hamilton said. “If that were the only thing that were happening in my tenure, I would be excited.”
The Monroe Convention Center and its planned expansion has been problematic for Hamilton, who has been criticized for straining the city and county relationship by privately meeting with architects. Community leaders involved in the project did not respond to a request for comment Friday regarding Hamilton’s role in the process.
The Hamilton administration’s chapped government relationships extend beyond south central Indiana, to the state and federal levels.
The more than 600 bedrooms of affordable housing created or preserved in Hamilton’s first three years were brought about by a variety of methods he outlined in his first State of the City address.
But Hamilton’s effort to incorporate inclusionary zoning was squashed by state lawmakers.
“It just means we have to be more creative,” Hamilton said. “The legislature ties a hand behind our back, we’ve got to use the other one and build it up stronger to get what our community wants.”
The city has created a pilot program for accessory dwelling units, helped launch senior living options for low-income citizens and leveraged more than $10 million through a new community banking institution for developers to use for affordable housing.
“We’ve got to tie the engine of our prosperous city to protecting affordability, or we will gentrify and we will make it impossible for people of moderate means and low means to be able to live in this city,” Hamilton said.
His administration also launched the Housing Development Fund and solicited developers for cash in lieu of on-site affordable housing, a practice that’s legal but likened to bribery.
Hamilton rejects that characterization. He said asking for a contribution is similar to the way the city can require developers to provide green space in their projects.
Hamilton said the federal department of Housing and Urban Development has reduced funding in recent years and as a result, cities must develop affordable housing on their own.
He is behind the community push for affordable housing, but points out it’s not free. “It has to be paid for and made economically viable in some way,” Hamilton said.
Monroe County residents had their own economic concerns about the Hamilton administration’s 2017 attempt at annexing around 10,000 acres into the city.
Geoff McKim, a county council member, said he attended just about every meeting about annexation. He said a majority of residents at those meetings were against the proposal.
“As you can probably imagine, what I heard from county residents was overwhelmingly negative,” McKim said.
Curious as to how the annexation might impact taxing units, McKim calculated the details on how the county’s lower tax revenues might be balanced by new services. He said he never heard an adequate proposal for how the county would recover that lost tax revenue.
“That was the argument form the taxing units, but the argument from the residents was that they felt like they were going to be paying more money and having more regulation, and they didn’t feel the benefits would outweigh the potential costs.”
That debate was cut short when the state legislature approved its 2017 biennial budget bill with a section effectively terminating Bloomington’s annexation attempt and prohibiting any further attempts to annex until 2022. The city announced it was suing the state and Governor Eric Holcomb shortly after. Hamilton said the city filed its final briefing in lawsuit last week and Bloomington officials will present before the court in the coming months. Already, he anticipates whoever loses will file an appeal.
“I guess litigation will take the gas out of all kinds of things. It just means you’ve got to sit and wait for the court. We’ll see what happens,” Hamilton said. “Litigation will take its merry time.”
Hamilton sees the city’s move to activity-based budgeting, which directly links spending to actions and their outcomes, as another form of transparency. He’s also planning to involve local youth in the new budgeting format.
B-Clear, the city’s data portal with more than 150 data sets open for the public’s use, helped the city earn a top ten ranking in the Center for Digital Government’s 2018 Digital Cities Survey. The B-Clear portal was one of the first initiatives launched by the Hamilton administration.
Another of the city’s websites aimed at transparency drew harsh criticism late last year for including the full names and addresses of all individuals who died from a drug overdose in Monroe County in the past 10 years, including minors. Hamilton said the city learned from that experience that full transparency can sometimes be painful.
Other times, it can be loud. Protesters interrupted Hamilton’s State of the City Address in 2018 to argue that the city’s decision to purchase an armored vehicle was too secretive, and that such a vehicle would serve to militarize the police.
Later that month, Hamilton admitted the city could’ve been more forthcoming in its decision. The Bloomington City Council has since passed legislation to ensure a more public review of such purchases in the future. More recently, Hamilton said the core of the debate was not about transparency, but about whether the city should even have the vehicle.
The city’s plan for a ubiquitous, community controlled and revenue positive fiber infrastructure is not dead.
“I’ve probably spent more time myself on that effort than any other individual project because I do think the digital infrastructure of our community is essential, it continues to be essential to our future,” Hamilton said.
After hosting a symposium and advertising the city’s interest to the world with a request for qualifications, the city chose Canadian fiber infrastructure provider Axia as its chosen partner. That relationship dissolved when the company’s capital sources decided not to invest. Hamilton said one positive to come from the failed partnership was that other fiber providers increased their services in response to the competition. In the meantime, the city has had ongoing negotiations with two more companies since the Axia deal fell apart.
Hamilton also feels the current federal administration’s response to innovative and consumer-focused digital infrastructure was a step in the wrong direction. He said the state government has its own anti-government bent, one that’s dominated by rural and conservative voices.
“Indiana will not be a successful state without very successful cities making up its economy and culture and its social centers. To have successful municipalities, successful cities, you’ve got to get your boot off the neck to let cities innovate, differentiate, follow their strengths and pursue their opportunities,” Hamilton said.