April 22, 2019 06:11 AM
The 37-year-old mayor and native of the former Rust Belt town has sparked redevelopment there and inspired younger citizens to take pride in their city. Chicago political backers are taking notice.
By MARK GUARINO
Like many young people who grew up in South Bend, Ind., in the late 1970s, Elizabeth Loring left town as soon as possible. For her and others of her generation, the former Rust Belt city held no jobs and no future.
Then, decades later, she moved back and discovered her hometown was being run by Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who declared his run for U.S. president on April 14. She attended city council meetings and heard Buttigieg talk about attracting jobs of the future, not raising hopes for the same auto manufacturing jobs that left town and never came back. She bumped into Buttigieg and his husband at restaurants and art events and got to know both by name. More importantly, she witnessed the downtown she remembered as dismal and empty suddenly flickering to life with new businesses and streetscapes.
"There was hopefulness and energy downtown I had not seen in my lifetime," says Loring, a graphic designer. "I thought, 'My God, this guy understands what makes an urban area attractive more than anyone from this city maybe ever.' "
South Bend, a town of about 100,000 that is home to the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary's College, has many outspoken loyalists for Buttigieg, a native of the city who became mayor in 2011 when he was just 29. The April 14 rally that attracted about 5,500 people to hear his campaign announcement served as a symbol of his two-term tenure in South Bend. It was held in the former Studebaker auto plant that since 1963 had stood empty but is now the anchor of the Renaissance District, an 80-block area outside of downtown being redeveloped into what the city says will be the largest mixed-use technology campus in the Midwest. Buttigieg played an important role in helping drive the public-private partnership forward.
"There weren't a lot of people thinking this place is cool and wanting to move here. Now people are saying, 'You better hurry up to be here before it's full,' " says Sam Centellas, executive director of La Casa De Amistad, a nonprofit community center on the city's west side.
The enthusiasm for Buttigieg, who, at 37, would be the youngest person to be elected president and the first who's openly gay, extends to Chicago. Buttigieg will be in Chicago on April 23 to attend a sold-out private fundraiser in Lincoln Park. Organizer Todd Connor says donations have already exceeded the goal of $50,000. "I've never seen such an enthusiastic response," he says. The party will be held at the home of attorney Andy Schapiro, former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic under then-President Barack Obama.
Of the momentum building around Buttigieg, Connor says "it's emerging as a mainstay campaign with financial support from folks who are serious about backing candidates who can win."
Connor, CEO of Bunker Labs in Chicago, a national nonprofit aiding veteran entrepreneurs, says Chicago's donor community is gravitating toward Buttigieg because of its "desire to identify a viable candidate" who will win in 2020 where votes matter the most.
"The excitement over Pete is not just the fact that folks got to know him a little bit in Chicago because he's mayor of South Bend, but also because we see the potential for a Midwest candidate who ultimately can win the Midwest states," he says.
Economists say South Bend is far from a success story, but also that it's unrealistic to blame Buttigieg for problems that have persisted there for years. For example, both the city's per-capita and median household incomes have consistently fallen behind U.S. and state averages for a decade and a half. The share of adults with a college degree is only 75 percent of the national average. On a positive note, unemployment during Buttigieg's tenure fell from nearly 10 percent when he first took office to 4 percent this year, but Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business & Economic Research at Ball State University in Muncie, says South Bend has benefited from upticks in the national economy as a whole.
"Both his political foes and friends are going to seize on aggregate data like unemployment and household income, but I don't think any of those can yet tell a useful story for them," Hicks says. Where Buttigieg has made an impact is convincing residents and other stakeholders that South Bend has a future beyond manufacturing. He has also focused on less flashy initiatives that are destined to make positive impacts in years to come. His blight program, for example, has exceeded expectations and so far has demolished or repaired about 1,120 homes, according to the city. "I hate to use the word 'transformational,' but he has certainly turned the municipal response to a 50-year problem in the right direction," Hicks says.
SPRUCING UP SOUTH BEND
Another priority for Buttigieg was downtown. He spurred development by sprucing up city amenities, such as leading a $700,000 effort in private money to create a laser-light display on a biking and walking trail along the St. Joseph River, and allocating $25 million in city money to redevelop downtown streets to slow traffic and make the area friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. Developers followed: $374 million in private money has been spent on mixed-use projects, including repurposing a 25-story tower into a Marriott Aloft hotel and a $22 million apartment complex wrapping around the stadium where the South Bend Cubs, a Chicago Cubs farm team, play.
In the part of town nicknamed Little Mexico, where La Casa De Amistad's Centellas lives, ripple effects from the infrastructure improvements are emerging. At least five new businesses have opened their doors on Western Avenue, the neighborhood's main corridor. "A lot of people talk about these projects, but what people in the neighborhood notice more is Buttigieg himself—he's a regular at several of those places," Centellas says of the mayor, who speaks fluent Spanish. "That's where the connectiveness comes from."
Locals say Buttigieg has encouraged a greater level of civic involvement from people who previously didn't consider themselves proud to be from South Bend. The change is palpable. Hicks noticed that the South Bend Rotary Club is populated by women, young people, and people of African and South Asian descent—a diverse profile compared to clubs in other cities where, he says, "diversity is whether or not you are Protestant or Catholic."
"There is abundant research that shows having social institutions supporting all people is important to the local economy. That is actually working in South Bend in ways that it doesn't work in other places," Hicks says.
Aaron Nichols, executive director of the South Bend Civic Theatre, where Buttigieg's husband, Chasten Buttigieg, works as the curriculum director, says the mayor's embrace of the city despite having "every opportunity to have a coastal life" as a graduate of both Harvard University and the University of Oxford is part of what made him "a catalyst" for the city.
Buttigieg has announced he will not seek a third term for mayor. Locals are already prepping for a future where they won't bump into "Mayor Pete" at the theater or the local diner because he'll be on the campaign trail or possibly in the White House.
"For a city that is starting to believe in itself again, hopefully some of those beliefs aren't tied to one person," says Centellas. "But I'm not sure if (the recent momentum) continues. I hope it does. He has been our kind of spiritual leader for a while."