A little more than a decade ago, the political tide in Monroe County began to change. While the city of Bloomington's politics had been dominated by Democrats since the early 1970s, in the mid 1990s county politics still tilted towards the right -- even if ever so slightly.
But that was a time, not long after James Howard Kunstler's book The Geography of Nowhere was published, of increasing public awareness of and antipathy toward suburban sprawl. While not yet ready to reject the culture of suburbia entirely, people nevertheless began to wonder if things were not going a little too far.
This, of course, represented a political opportunity. A platform on which office-seekers could run, and run successfully, by offering an alternative to the status quo.
And that they did, with candidates such as Mark Stoops, Bill Hayden and Scott Wells promoting a "better, not bigger" view of the future. People like Brian O'Neill who, while not taking the same populist high road of Stoops et. al., nevertheless still campaigned on a platform that held at its core the notion that the current system was broken -- and that suburbia contained intrinsic negatives, negatives that could and should be planned around.
And it was a quite successful message. Stoops, Wells and O'Neill all eventually won elected county office, while Hayden was unsuccessful only because the green tide was so strong that it managed to carry not one but two progressive candidates into the general election: Hayden and Green Party candidate Julie Roberts.
Unfortunately, Roberts's presence on the ballot (or Hayden's, depending on your point of view) ultimately split the progressive vote and handed the numeric advantage to the lone Republican. Were either Hayden or Roberts not sharing the ballot, the green candidate would have won decisively.
The electoral successes of the late 1990s continued through the new century. By the 2008 election, local Democrats had gained hegemony not only in Bloomington city government but in Monroe County government as well. And this hegemony, while hard-won, was the result of an electorate just as happy with the local political message as it was unhappy with the national Republican party.
And that message had largely been a continuation of the trend started earlier: no longer would our governments presume in favor of large real-estate interests, no longer would unchecked suburban sprawl run rampant, no longer would we feed the firebox of a runaway train called "development" with tax incentives, public/private "investment," and the full faith and guarantees of the community's citizens.
Except that it didn't happen that way.
The sausage factory
Beneath the transparent crust of government in this, a democracy, lies an opaque miasma of boards and commissions filled largely with appointed, not elected, officials. And it is through those boards and commissions that the actual execution of the machine of government is fueled, managed and throttled.
Those boards and commissions act as an institutional flywheel, smoothing over the roughness inherent in democracy and bridging the disconnects that occur whenever one party loses its majority status and another gains it. As such the appointees to boards and commissions mechanically represent the establishment order. They're the heads of local institutions, representatives from the business sector, of commerce and the clergy.
Never too left, never too right. A deep well of community memory, of how things had been done in the past and how they should be done in the future.
Plus ca change
In the last installment of "CIVITAS," I went over the public policy tool known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and, if you haven't read it, now might be a good time to.
Ok, you're back. You know all about TIF, how it was created to clean up blighted urban brownfields. But what you don't know is that it soon morphed into a tool used not to mitigate downtown brownfields but instead to finance the conversion of rural greenspace into suburban shopping malls. In fact, in Indiana, over 70 percent of all TIF districts created are created not over a decayed urban brownfield but over suburban and rural greenfields.
And it's no different in Monroe County where we currently boast three large TIF areas -- all drawn over what used to be fields of corn and soybeans. Most of them were planned and rolled out in the same late 1990s timeframe that also saw the inrush of progressive political candidates and the subsequent remaking of the face of county government from a pro-developer casino into something a little more presumptuous in favor of its residents.
At least on its face.
Plus c'est la meme chose
Last month came a request from a local employer, by way of the Bloomington Economic Development Commission, to the Monroe County Redevelopment Commission, which is responsible for administering the county's TIF districts: Could the county extend new road infrastructure into an area under one of the county TIFs but that is currently mere farmland?
Mere farmland, but speculative farmland to be sure. The land in question was owned by ex-Bloomington city councilman, and progressive vanguard, Jeffrey Willsey.
The request came because the employer wished to expand the size of its factory, which it could not do at the current location. And so the natural inclination was to develop another plot of land for the larger facility.
Concurrent with the employer's request was the existence of several industrial brownfields within the county. The old Westinghouse/ABB site on the near west side. The old RCA/Thomson site in the city's downtown. The empty million-square-foot factory on the site of the old Otis Elevator plant. And more.
Conventional wisdom would be that the new political climate, the new presumption of conservation, would drive a relentless consideration of those sites for re-use, not the conversion of even more of the county's dwindling agricultural and rural stock into office parks, factory settings and suburban retail.
But that's not what happened. It's been over 10 years since the progressives came barreling into county government on a platform of "not any more." And last November, the same Mark Stoops who had long ago campaigned on a platform of better not bigger was elected as a County Commissioner on that same platform.
But last June the Redevelopment Commission considered more of the same, the same agenda of greenspace conversion that sparked the backlash of a decade ago. The only redevelopment commissioner to vote against it was Don Moore, who had managed to get appointed to the commission even though he was outside the mold (i.e. not part of the establishment order).
And in its consideration it made the same decisions, the same presumption for sprawl and degradation that it would have made a decade ago.
The factory will move from its current location, creating yet another new brownfield, to its new location -- a farm. Which it will bulldoze under and pave over. The new brownfield will join the existing ones, and they will continue to exist, empty shells of unwanted buildings atop a tundra of cracked and weed-strewn asphalt. A necrotizing core corralled within a shockwave of radiating exurban development.
And the only thing left to wonder is, why? How can this happen? How can a local government be swept in on a mandate of change only to govern on a mandate of the same corrosive status quo?
And how can it be that the public holds no one accountable?
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.