Sunday, September 29, 2013

New Fishers Downtown: A Disconnnect

The Town of Fishers is building a new downtown.  The first stage of that has been to cut down mature trees decades old in front of Town Hall and adjacent to the post office, in preparation for construction of a mixed-use residential and retail building.

I hear two completely different discussions on this project.  Town employees and insiders all love the idea. But pretty much every ordinary citizen I have spoken with disagrees with it in varying intensity, all the way to outrage.  Let's take a look at this particular project, and the disconnect between town government and citizens.

Town leaders think this is "economic development".  Having been largely unable to land large employers (Geico and 1000 new jobs went to Carmel when Fishers was trying to land them), town staff seems determined to "play small ball" to use a sports metaphor.  They want the new downtown to appeal to younger professionals who can afford an somewhat upscale apartment near government, retail, and food venues.  This has been referred to as a "work live play" theme for millennials.

So they basically gave public green space to a developer to do the first stage.  And the second and subsequent stages will proceed east to Lantern Road, where the Fishers Redevelopment Commission, headed by Wayne Crane (former head of Reorganize Fishers, the merger plan that was defeated badly at the polls last year) is quietly buying up private property.

But literally every single private citizen I have spoken with hates this.  I don't know if they are just resisting change, or if they feel that everything is rammed down their throats, or what, but they are upset.  All of these people claim the first they knew anything about this was when the trees were being cut down.

But the Town DID hold public meetings on this plan, it has not been a secret.  And there is the problem. What the Town does just does not penetrate the public awareness prior to a decision being made.  They can post it on the Town web page, and publish it in "Town Talk", but this is not enough to connect with most people.  I have a suspicion that most issues of "Town Talk" go directly to the trash bin unread.

Local government frankly has done a BAD job of involving citizens.  They just go do their thing.  The elected officials mostly don't care enough, because it is so enormously difficult to replace them.  And they tend to live in an "echo chamber" of other insiders who repeat what they want to hear, without talking to John Q. Citizen who has a busy life, who often thinks something quite different.

The challenge here is mutual. Local government MUST do a better job of citizen involvement, somehow.  I note they have hired Dan Domsic, late of the Current in Fishers, as "community outreach coordinator".  I wish him well, he has some big challenges.  BUT, citizens MUST do a better job of learning what government is up to, what it plans to do, how it plans to pay for it, and get involved to make their voices heard.  Many don't care enough, and don't even vote in local elections.

And that is a huge part of the disconnect between Town Hall and citizens.