‘Rebranding’ Doesn’t Fix the Roads

The people governing my midsized Indiana city have plenty of vision. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much to do with me or my neighbors. They have "rebranded" us.

Hey, you wouldn’t recognize the place from our new and colorful branding website. It features videos about our exciting new life that can be used to entice people to our formerly boring old town. They can see us walking around having a great time in the architectural drawings and artistic renderings.

Officials spent six months working on this new brand, which is aimed at prospective residents and, oddly, people who already live here. They have conducted a national “perception survey” of more than 1,200 people in Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Toledo and Columbus, Ohio — all of whom, one supposes, will tell us what we should think of ourselves.

Alas, we have been here before. When a corporate chain bought our home-owned newspaper some years ago it undertook a rebranding of the business and its offices. New carpet was put down. Potted plants were sat around — lots of them.

The particular carpeting they shipped in from the coast succumbed to a mold that persists in these parts. Nor did the potted plants, a domesticated fig in the ficus family, do well in Indiana light, dropping a few yellowed leaves every week until they stood almost bare — pathetic sentinels to our corporate occupation.

Little thought had been given to what might fit here or even survive here. It was assumed that whatever was somewhere else was better and Indiana would be improved by the importation.

This played out in news decisions. Circulation dropped as steadily as the ficus leaves. All of this, sadly, was accepted as progress, an acceptance that revealed a Hoosier character flaw. It might be called the Ficus Syndrome.

For in the years immediately following Indiana’s derogation as a “Rust Bowl,” the state developed an inferiority complex. Hoosiers became resigned that experts were needed to tell them how to be like someone else — in any other somewhere place. It was about this time when a mayor of Indianapolis was quoted as saying, “When people around the world think of cricket, I want them to think of Indianapolis.”

Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a native Hoosier, captured our predicament in an article for this month’s City Lab magazine:

“The problem with the typical approach extends beyond just marketing. It has tangible consequences. A brand is really a city’s conception of itself. By selling itself as a facsimile of something it’s not, a city ends up turning that into reality. Thus, so many urban places today seem vaguely the same — a blur of Edison-bulbed eateries.”

Earlier, economists Barry Keating and Maryann O. Keating had a similar thought in a carefully researched article on governance models for The Indiana Policy Review. They gave us a warning:

“Good democratic governance is not about changing the occupational structure or population of a town in order to improve its rankings or to mimic amenities preferred by (more) affluent communities. It would seem that it is about responding to the needs of and providing essential services to residents regardless of present circumstances.”

Ignoring that comes at political and fiscal peril.

In Indianapolis, for example, we learn this week that IndyGo’s vaunted “Red Line” is modeled in part after the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART). Both are said to be ways to revitalize a city’s transportation system and make it "sustainable." Instead, the Albuquerque mayor has conceded that the $133-million project is “a bit of a lemon.” No word yet from the Indianapolis mayor.

In Fort Wayne, officials forgot to tell taxpayers that developers involved in the city’s grand “Electric Works” complex downtown, anticipated to cost half-a-billion dollars with only 10 percent from private equity, had failed in similar projects back East. And this week the developer of the "tipping point" project for the city’s ever-so-visionary riverfront walk pulled out before the first spade of dirt had been turned.

The trouble, as Popeye would say, is we “am what we am.” The solutions from the coasts never quite work out here, however creative the rebranding. The somewhere-else boosters eventually give up on us. They retire to wherever they found so emulative, complaining to the neighbor across the Camellia shrub that the rubes back home weren’t smart enough to carry it off.

Have members of Indiana’s political class decided they can no longer work with the Hoosier citizenry? Maybe, they seem determined to replace us with a more agreeable, more appreciative, even prettier electorate.

This would be forgivable, even supportable, if they were risking their own money, if the roads and schools were in good shape, if they weren’t expecting our children and grandchildren to finance their vision, which, let’s face it, will be an anachronism by the time the bonds are paid off and the refinancing has run its course.

Our membership does not need to be told that this runs counter to our governing philosophy — not just since the Constitutional Convention but since the Magna Carta. Regardless of the actual or supposed genius of our kings, the governments of Western Civilization are expected to reflect both generally and primarily the expressed needs of their subjects.

Indiana, please know, is a wonderful place full of wonderful people with innovative ideas and an invincible work ethic. We would be better served if our legislators, educators and even mayors could quit treating us as an embarrassment.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected].