Pete Buttigieg says he’s mayor of a turnaround city. Here’s how that claim stands up.
As South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg nears the end of 8 years in office and looks ahead to a presidential run, residents and council members reflect on his impact. Indianapolis Star
SOUTH BEND — In today's political climate, Pete Buttigieg's presidential aspirations are resonating for a variety of reasons: He's a millennial, a war veteran, well-educated, gay. And, to some acclaim, he's taking on Mike Pence.
But before any of that caught the nation's attention, South Bend's mayor was building a reputation with another item on his résumé. He leads what he frequently calls a turnaround city.
When Buttigieg took office eight years ago, South Bend had been hemorrhaging jobs and population for a half-century. The blue-collar, rust-belt city hadn't recovered from the closure of hometown automaker Studebaker in the early 1960s.
Buttigieg, now 37, took on the resulting blight by demolishing a rash of vacant homes, left abandoned in neighborhoods throughout the city. Then, he spent tens of millions of dollars to spark a rebirth in what had been a dying downtown. Now, unemployment is down and the city’s population is slowly rising after decades of decline.
There's been criticism, too, including that South Bend's redevelopment could be leading to gentrification. He's also tangled in the city's costliest court battle ever, in which his administration is fighting the release of illegally made recordings of police officers' phone conversations that news reports have described as racially charged.
But along the way, The Washington Post dubbed him the most interesting mayor you've never heard of, and he picked up an affable nickname, Mayor Pete.
Not everyone thinks everything has gone smoothly, but according to IndyStar interviews with local government officials, political experts, neighborhood activists, business leaders and tourism officials, Buttigieg has South Bend headed in the right direction.
"I think that a big part of his appeal in South Bend is he's looking toward the future rather than trying to return to the past," said Elizabeth Bennion, a politics professor at Indiana University-South Bend. "He really focused on what’s next for the city, and people appreciate that."
There are other factors in South Bend's progress, of course. Buttigieg benefited from the economic recovery following the recession. He's embraced Notre Dame, which is trying to foster local entrepreneurship through a pair of start-up hubs. A Native American tribe, the Potawatomi, opened the Four Winds casino along the highway, pumping millions annually into city coffers.
Buttigieg hopes to convince voters in a crowded Democratic presidential field that his experience leading South Bend qualifies him to try on a bigger stage.
"I hope the South Bend model is one that can help demonstrate on a much larger scale, but with very similar pressures, how it can be done through good government, tough choices and the right kind of leadership," he told a group of reporters after the March 12 State of the City address.
South Bend demolishes, repairs 1,000 homes in 1,000 days
Back in 2011, when Buttigieg was a 29-year-old knocking on doors to ask for votes, he heard the same question time and time again: What are you going to do about all of the vacant homes?
Studebaker employed more than 24,000 workers at its height in the 1950s. As South Bend's population shrank by roughly a quarter over the five decades following its demise, large swaths of neighborhoods were left abandoned and crumbling. Homes had windows boarded up. Roofs were caving in. Walls were collapsing.
As mayor, Buttigieg sought to identify which homes to tear down or save. A task force he organized listed 1,900 vacant homes, of which 1,275 were abandoned and had code violations no one was addressing.
By leveling fees and fines, the city leaned on homeowners to make repairs or have their houses demolished. In many cases, Buttigieg said, the homeowners proved impossible to find amid a string of active and inactive investment companies. In other cases, he said, they were unwilling or unable to make repairs.
South Bend City Council President Tim Scott, a task force member and fellow Democrat, said many houses had become a safety concern. He said no one lost the homes in which they were living and the city made every effort to reach and work with homeowners.
"The whole idea was trying to right-size the city and try to understand really what our housing needs are," he said, "and trying to eliminate some of the unsafe, low-quality housing."
Buttigieg decided to promote an aggressive timetable — 1,000 homes in 1,000 days.
"That was a way to hold the administration and, especially me, accountable that we got there," said Buttigieg in a phone interview with IndyStar.
By September 2015, a thousand days in, the city had taken action on 1,122 properties. Roughly 60 percent were demolished and 40 percent were repaired, according to the city.
While Buttigieg made a splashy affair of reaching the goal in local media, that wasn't the end. The program continues to this day.
"At any given time, we find that 50 to 100 houses slip into that category," Buttigieg said. "Between active code enforcement and other resources we can bring to bear, we try to stay ahead of the problem."
He's still not sure precisely what to do with all of those empty lots. Buttigieg decided against creating parks, for fear of adding overhead to an already strapped city budget.
Some investors have built new homes. Some properties are community gardens. Some are available for future development. The majority remain privately owned, empty lots.
South Bend was too quick to fine homeowners, some critics say
Community advocates in poorer, often African-American or Hispanic neighborhoods began to complain that the city was being too aggressive in fining property owners over code enforcement.
The city leveled fines that added up to thousands of dollars, in certain cases, to pressure homeowners to make repairs or have their houses demolished. It also charged homeowners for the cost of tearing down those houses.
Regina Williams-Preston experienced that firsthand. It's what spurred the sometimes-critic of Buttigieg to run for City Council. She said the city contacted her and her husband about three investment properties and began issuing fines over unmade repairs.
Ultimately, she said, the city bulldozed the homes. Her husband had intended to flip the properties, she said, but he was hospitalized and lost the time and the financial means to do so.
She ultimately owed the city about $2,000 in fines, she said. Her husband, she said, settled lawsuits by agreeing to pay about $25,000 for the cost of demolition.
The city's policy was not to bulldoze a home with someone living in it. But, Williams-Preston said, some folks like her had acquired cheap investment properties with the intention of fixing them up. Others had inherited homes. It's not unusual for generations of any family to live in the same neighborhood, she said.
"Homes were coming down blocks at a time," she said, "Dust was in the air, and people were wondering what is going on, and why are we just tearing down homes. They’ll say they were targeting vacant homes, but they didn’t really understand the community."
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As a councilwoman, she said, she brought her community's perspective to the mayor and the city altered course. The city, she said, has begun working more closely and cooperatively with homeowners from her area in the past few years to help them repair, instead of lose, homes.
South Bend began providing more incentives for people in poorer areas to fix up their homes, she said, including a $2 million grant program for home repair and a $2 million program to provide affordable housing.
"I think it's really a mark of a true leader to hear that maybe 'I'm doing something wrong' because, quite frankly, there were a lot of mistakes made," said Williams-Preston, who is running to replace Buttigieg as mayor. "But what happened was he did slow down and he did listen and he did change course. And so many people would dig in their heels and just kind of keep going."
Buttigieg declined to comment specifically on Williams-Preston's situation. He said he did make changes in part after hearing concerns from neighborhoods.
Most significantly, he told the city's code enforcement agency to measure progress by the number of violations that were addressed by property owners. The agency had been measuring success by the number of citations it issued.
"We’ve tried to make sure the code enforcement department is reasonable when it comes to giving people time to work out issues," he said.
Others fear gentrification
Advocates in the city's predominately minority neighborhoods that have been disproportionately affected by Buttigieg's policies on vacant homes have taken a mixed view. They worry that South Bend's redevelopment is leading to gentrification but acknowledge the mayor has taken steps to slow it down.
South Bend, which is roughly 54 percent white, 26 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic, is in the midst of a massive amount of publicly and privately driven reinvestment that's touching nearly every part of the city.
Buttigieg says $852 million in private investment has been spent on city-incentivized deals since he's been mayor. New neighborhoods and commercial development are springing up, especially downtown and near Notre Dame. Developers are eyeing all of those vacant lots and are building new homes throughout the city.
As is the case in Indianapolis and other communities across the country experiencing so-called urban renewal, many community advocates worry African-American and Hispanic households are being replaced by predominately white neighborhoods.
People of color face financial struggles in South Bend at a rate much higher than the national average.
Forty percent of African-American households in the city fall below the poverty line, nearly twice the national average for such households, according to a report by the Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group Prosperity Now. Thirty-three percent of Hispanics are below the poverty line, 10 percentage points above the national average.
The neighborhoods near Notre Dame, in particular, are facing these issues. Predominately minority subdivisions been been replaced by upscale homes and businesses largely owned by whites.
The most prominent is called Eddy Street Commons. Just off campus, it's reminiscent of the redevelopments in downtown Carmel and Fishers, with multistory buildings that have first-floor retail and upper-floor apartments. The commercial area is surrounded by massive new homes.
That redevelopment began several years before Buttigeig took office and has flourished this decade.
Neighborhood advocates in other areas of the city worry it's only a matter of time before gentrification comes to their door step.
Stacey Odom said she approached the mayor after learning of preliminary plans to redevelop her neighborhood, a historically black area called LaSalle Park, on the city's west side. She said she told Buttigieg the city should help the people currently living there keep their homes.
The redevelopment plans, which she characterized as not having progressed very far, were abandoned. She asked the mayor for $300,000 for a grant program to help homeowners with repairs. He countered, she said, with $650,000.
Odom, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for four generations, was spurred to found a community development corporation that connects area homeowners with resources to help keep them in place. She has an aggressive goal of her own: to repair 60 homes in two west-side neighborhoods and build another 28.
"That’s the kind of person you want in office," she said. "Someone who is looking at your best interests. And if they’re not (at first), if you go to them and tell them what your interests are, then they will take your concerns and make them their concerns."
Buttigieg said the city has decided to budget $1 million annually for such programs.
He said he didn't recall a specific plan to redevelop Odom's neighborhood and thinks the pressures of redevelopment likely are years away in that area.
"You don't see those kinds of pressures yet (on the west side)," he said, "but we’re sensitive to making sure we are ahead of them to make sure that doesn't happen."
'Downtown South Bend is back'
Downtown South Bend, once a blighted ghost town, has become a success story after the city pumped tens of millions into infrastructure and development deals.
When Buttigieg took office, the city's tallest high-rise was vacant and crumbling, night life was nearly nonexistent and the two main roadways were set up as high-speed, one-way thoroughfares with timed lights to get people in and out as quickly as possible.
He spent $25 million in 2017, largely to turn those two thoroughfares, Michigan Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, into two-way roads. He reduced the number of lanes but created landscaped medians, bike paths, sidewalks and roundabouts. The city made similar improvements throughout downtown on the remaining, less heavily traveled streets.
Buttigieg wanted to slow down traffic and create a more pedestrian-friendly environment. He credits the project with directly creating more than $100 million of direct investment.
That was just the start. Developers soon came knocking. The city spent $23.5 million on infrastructure for 14 developments, spurring $374 million in private investment on hotels, apartments, condos, offices, retail and restaurants.
Now, he likes to say: "Downtown South Bend is back."
Perhaps most notably, the 25-story Chase Tower was transformed into an upscale and modern Marriott-brand Aloft hotel, with soon-to-open first-floor retail and upper-floor condos. The stadium for the city's lower-tier Chicago Cubs affiliate also is being wrapped by apartments with field views. And Studebaker's former eight-floor main factory, a vacant eyesore since the 1960s, is being redeveloped into a tech center.
Unemployment has dropped from 11.8 percent when Buttigieg was elected to 4.1 percent this year. Many of those new jobs are downtown.
South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Rea said the benefits have been undeniable as businesses have invested.
"Pete has played a critical role in getting deals done," he said. "He's raised our profile, too. He's well spoken. He's articulate. He's a person you don't mind having sit on the other side of a table from a CEO."
Mark McDonnell, owner of LaSalle Grill, said that people didn't want to live or hang out downtown as recently as a few years ago. They drove to work, he said. And then they drove home. He can't believe the change brought about by the city's investment.
He said traffic has slowed and calmed. Business is booming. The city holds festivals and events that draw in more customers. Nearly 1,000 people live there now, compared to effectively zero when Buttigieg took office.
"It's a heck of a lot better than it was five yeas ago," McDonnell said. "I think Pete started in the core and made a commitment, 'I'm going to improve downtown.' "
The mayor also spearheaded a $700,000 effort, which was privately raised, to create a laser-light display along the St. Joseph River trail downtown. Every night, the lasers spectacularly light up a small waterfall that stretches across the river.
More development has followed, including a $38 million condo project overlooking that part of the river.
"This is part of an idea that public art can be an investment for a downtown community," Buttigieg said. "It also reflects this policy change we've had since Day One, where we have to treat our river as a centerpiece and source of value."
The city's nine-member City Council has supported Buttigieg, voting time and again for the incentives to attract downtown redevelopment. The local brewery gave that commitment a nod with the name of a craft brew — 9 Aye IPA.
Even the lone Republican, Jake Teshka, finds little room to criticize the mayor.
"I think if you ask not just me, but a lot of Republicans in South Bend, they'd have to admit that Pete has done a good job in a lot of ways," Teshka said. "He’s done a great job of attracting new and exciting economic development opportunities. He’s got an eye for attracting young, innovative talent to the city and really breathing new life into an administration that could have been described before as old and maybe not so forward-thinking."
Lawsuits in police scandal cost city $2 million — and counting
Buttigieg's administration has drawn attention locally by spending $2 million in court fees and legal settlements over a police phone-tapping incident that's still before the courts. It's the most expensive case in the city's history.
During his first year in office, Buttigieg learned the police department had been recording the conversations of some police officers without their consent. And, he said, the police chief was using those recordings to his advantage.
In 2011, a year before Buttigieg took office, the system that had been used to record the calls for six years crashed, according to court files. In rebooting it, the city's communications director discovered what she thought were inappropriate conversations among several officers, according to court filings. She told the police chief, who used the recordings to threaten at least one officer he thought was disloyal, according to the filings.
The problem is that those conversations were recorded without the officers' knowledge, permission or court warrants, according to the court filings. Believing the recordings violated federal wiretapping laws, Buttigieg ultimately demoted the chief and fired the communications director.
"Federal prosecutors made it clear they were likely to indict leadership in the Police Department unless I made changes," Buttigieg said.
Several officers involved in the incident, including the former chief, sued the city for damages and settled, according to the documents. The chief has denied wrongdoing, and a special prosecutor declined to file charges.
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The City Council also filed a lawsuit against the Buttigieg administration to make the recordings public, a case which still is ongoing.
Buttigieg said he never listened to the tapes but he has heard they were racially charged. Regardless, he thinks they were illegally made and so has refused to release them without a court order.
"It's a felony punishable by imprisonment," Buttigieg said, "so it's something you want to be careful about."
Looking toward the future
Buttigieg gave his eighth and final State of the City address March 12 to several hundred people at a downtown performing arts center.
While the mayor took time to reflect on his two terms, for the most part, he looked toward the city's future.
South Bend has begun spending $50 million to upgrade parks throughout the city, the largest single such investment in parks' history. In many cases, small neighborhood parks are receiving face-lifts with splash pads, playgrounds and walking paths for the first time in decades. The city also is building a community center, an intricate ice-skating path, playground, cafe and event lawn at its downtown riverfront park.
The mayor still is thinking big. He is pushing hard to extend the South Shore rail line several miles to downtown, though it likely would be started and completed long after he's left office. The commuter rail route starts in Chicago and ends on the city's west side near the airport.
"If this proves feasible," he told the crowd, "and if we can validate previous estimates that this can be done for $100 million or less, then we expect South Bend will see at least a 4-to-1 return on this investment. I would hope that we can achieve this goal by 2025."
Buttigieg didn't openly address his candidacy for president. He did, though, make some clear references to his own political future.
"This small city of ours has become a winning example of how the industrial Midwest can fashion a new and better life for itself, not through nostalgia or by way of impossible promises to return to the past, but by an insistence that change be made to work for us."
Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.