Learning from the Hoosiers

Jeff vonKaenel

Indianapolis and Sacramento both have a metro population of about 2 million. Both have NBA teams that have never won a championship in their city. Both are river and railroad towns. So the Hoosier state capital was a natural choice for the Sacramento Metro Chamber's annual study mission.

Along with approximately 90 business and nonprofit leaders, government employees and elected officials, I spent last Tuesday through Friday learning how a similar city handles transit, tourism, economic development, neighborhood development focused on poor minority areas and government decision-making. We rode in a pace car whizzing around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 120 mph. That was a thrill! And we experienced Midwestern humidity. Not a thrill.

The chamber staff rounded up expert after expert, who were more than happy to share their Indianapolis experiences. Some of these experts used to work in Sacramento, so they were able to compare and contrast our two cities. The study missions are a petri dish for good ideas.

The Hoosiers had more to teach than I have space to write. But here are my major takeaways. Over four days, we heard the word “collaborative” hundreds of times. One after another, people spoke about how governments worked with corporations, who worked with nonprofits, to “get stuff done.” Like what?

A major expansion of hotel rooms and convention space, which has increased the number of visitors by several hundred thousand, or roughly 50%. They built a professional football stadium even before they had a commitment for a team. They raised funds to subsidize direct flights to Paris. The business community led a major transit ballot initiative that raises $54 million a year from a 0.25% income tax, costing the average household about $120 a year.

One remarkable thing about this collaborative spirit is that it has been maintained even when the mayor’s position has switched parties. There has been a real effort to maintain continuity with the previous administration. There are not the extreme differences between Republicans and Democrats in Indiana that we have in California.

This is not to say that everything is working perfectly. Despite significant economic growth, there is a profound gap between the haves and have-nots in Indianapolis. Virtually every speaker remarked on the horrible poverty numbers and the large segment of their city’s population, particularly the minority population, that was being left behind in their economic expansion.

But the speakers also pointed out that Indianapolis is a blue island in a red Republican state, whose electorate is extremely hostile to higher taxes. So businesses and nonprofits need to step up because the government will not be able to.

Collaboration is the key for getting the most accomplished with finite resources. We heard over and over that this begins with trusting and listening to all community members, and a willingness to compromise and to model good behavior.

The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce has a national reputation for its large size as well as its ability to bring the community together, leading with trust, as opposed to political manipulation.

One of the reasons that we went to Indianapolis was to see an effective chamber. The Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, led by its new CEO Amanda Blackwood, is now on a similar path. The changes she’s made in her short tenure are impressive.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.