With Pete Buttigieg enjoying significant buzz over his dark-horse presidential candidacy, it is an opportune moment to consider his time as mayor of South Bend, Ind. I do so with the critical eye of an economist who has visited, studied and written about the city for more than a decade.
I am not an unabashed supporter of “Mayor Pete,” and South Bend’s renaissance after decades of decline is far from complete. But don’t take this as an indictment of Buttigieg or his leadership. Change is slow. What he has done is place South Bend on a road to recovery. In my judgment, he has led three important changes that should in time change the fortunes for one of America’s most troubled large cities.
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Mayor Pete clearly loves South Bend. His academic and military career offered him a passport to virtually any world city, but he returned to a city that would appear to have lost its charm many decades ago. The city’s population peaked in the 1960 Census, and is today has 30% fewer residents. It now has about 100,000 people — roughly the size of Tuscaloosa Ala., Sparks, Nev., Lakewood, NJ, or Burbank, Calif.
Population loss has been hard on South Bend. A study published earlier this year by my research center reported that the average home there was worth less than it would cost to rebuild it. In his book, “Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future,” Buttigieg mentions a home he owns in the city that cost a mere $60,000. That same home would be worth between 10 and 15 times that amount in almost any major city in the United States.
Like many other Rust Belt towns, South Bend has been in demographic decline since the 1950s, and in economic decline since the 1960s. When Mayor Buttigieg took office, South Bend’s per capita income lagged the U.S. by a decade and a half, and the share of adults with a college degree was only 75% of the national average. Today, the city’s per-capita GDP has hardly changed in six years and has yet to top the pre-financial-crisis level.
The simple fact is that other than sharing in the unemployment-rate reductions of the national economic expansion, none of the top-line economic indicators for South Bend have changed markedly over Buttigieg’s mayoral stint. But a half-century of deep neglect can’t be fixed in half a decade. What he has done, though, is provide a blueprint for other troubled Rust Belt towns.
How Buttigieg has been transformational
Faced with an archaic and ineffective economic development apparatus, a global university (Notre Dame) that did little locally, and dim economic prospects, Buttigieg convinced the city to look forward, not backward. The tool he used was the closed Studebaker plant, which ceased operations in 1963, nearly two decades before the mayor was born. Convincing the folks of South Bend that manufacturing employment growth would not resurrect South Bend should’ve been easy, but it was not.
Across much of the Midwest the wistful and fact-starved belief that prosperity is only one factory relocation away isn’t just common, it is ubiquitous. In no place was it stronger than South Bend. By flatly exposing facts and transforming the old factory into a nascent technology center, Buttigieg spoke the truth in a hopeful way. This alone would have marked him as a transformational mayor, but he also took concrete actions to address the city’s most intractable real problems.
The South Bend metro area has a housing vacancy rate of roughly 13%, or more than 13,000 excess homes. Most are abandoned. These properties decay, attract crime and reduce the value of homes across the county. Bulldozing these properties is administratively challenging and an unpopular use of money, but necessary for a South Bend Renaissance. The Buttigieg administration embarked on the most ambitious blight reduction effort in decades, meeting its goal of eliminating 1,000 abandoned homes in 1,000 days.
South Bend’s Rotary
Mayor Pete’s leadership style also involved a dramatic change in citizen involvement in civic affairs. The best evidence I have of this elusive trait comes from a talk I gave to the South Bend Rotary last year. I often gives these talks, and it should come as no surprise that Rotary luncheons in the Midwest are mostly comprised of older men and their fathers. This is a demographic tragedy given the importance of the Rotary in a healthy civic culture.
The South Bend Rotary looked radically different. It was more like in interdisciplinary research colloquium, combined with an interfaith conference and millennial business forum. The Buttigieg administration knows this organization is important and makes clear to its constituents that their participation is critical.
To be clear, this is not an endorsement of Pete Buttigieg for the presidency. I think him wrong on a number of important policy issues confronting our nation. Nor do I think the improved prospects for South Bend are his alone. Notre Dame has become deeply involved in the community, and the vast fiscal reforms ushered in by Mitch Daniels, who was governor from 2005 to 2013, made possible many of the business opportunities that South Bend has seized.
Most importantly, the Regional Cities Initiative from Daniels’ successor, Mike Pence, vastly enabled the types of policies Buttigieg was working toward. If there is a single state or national policy that boosted South Bend’s prospects, it flowed from the Pence Administration’s visionary efforts. Buttigieg’s book gives too little credit to Pence’s Regional Cities Initiative. Moreover, other mayors in Indiana, particularly Kokomo’s Greg Goodnight, were more successful in generating long-term change.
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Still, South Bend is poised for an economic recovery, maybe even a renaissance. It will take time, maybe another two decades with lots of hard work. When it does come, it seems clear to me that residents of this long-troubled Rust Belt town can look back to Pete Buttigeig’s leadership as the catalyst for much-needed change.
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Michael J. Hicks is the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics and the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Follow him on Twitter @HicksCBER.