A new mayor, a new era for South Bend

A new mayor, a new era and a new vision for the future.

Since he took office in January, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has wasted no time rolling up his sleeves and working on South Bend’s positive transformation.

Looking out across the city’s horizon from his 14th floor office, Mayor Buttigieg is optimistic about the kind of place South Bend will be in the future.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg

“I want South Bend to be regarded as a vibrant regional center, a great place to live, and the kind of place where you’d want to spend leisure time,” he says. “And, I’d want South Bend to provide an excellent environment for business. We have the elements of all of these things right now, but we need to come together around the idea of a ‘comeback’ for South Bend. Ten years from now, I would hope that South Bend’s comeback would be obvious to visitors and residents alike.”

Take downtown, for example. While there already are lively clubs, restaurants and shops that give South Bend’s main streets a hip, urban feel, Mayor Buttigieg is eager to see even more development in the core of the city.

“I’d like to see more retail and leisure activities in the downtown area, so people want to spend more time in the heart of the city,” he says, adding that he’d also like to see further development on the west side of town.

But in the big picture, the Mayor envisions further improvements in the way residents and outsiders perceive South Bend itself.

“I want people to have a better feeling about the direction of the city,” he says. “And, I want South Bend to have a certain ‘coolness’ to it, in the way that people talk about the communities they’re attracted to visit or spend time in.”

Even though he’s been in office less than 100 days, the Mayor already has some firm ideas about turning these visions into reality.

Innovative solutions, while building on the basics

One of the Mayor’s immediate goals is to make city government even more effective and responsive than ever. In other words, more able to move nimbly and intelligently to effect positive change.

“It has to be easier to get results and answers from your government,” the Mayor says. “We need to have a city government that is highly responsive to businesses thinking about moving here or growing here.”

Specifically, the Mayor has been working with city employees to develop a positive, customer-service mentality when it comes to performing their jobs and serving the public. By taking ownership of public needs, city employees can actively participate in the positive changes under way in South Bend.

“The easier we make it to live and work here, the more growth we’re going to see,” he says.

Mayor Buttigieg’s plan for a smarter, more user-friendly government also includes an innovative technological component: a 3-1-1 line. Once it is rolled out within the next year, the 3-1-1 line will empower citizens by putting information, as well as answers to their questions, right at their fingertips with one call. Major cities like New York have had tremendous success with 3-1-1 lines, which convey basic information like school closings or road construction alerts, and provide a means for citizens to take part in solving neighborhood problems — for example, by reporting such things as graffiti or traffic lights that don’t work. (For more information on the 3-1-1 line, see “Innovation in Government.”)

South Bend is ‘open for business’

“We also need to convey the idea that South Bend is ‘open for business,’” says Mayor Buttigieg.

Already, the Mayor has had some success on the economic development front, with the decision to convert the old Gates dealership downtown into a brand new Veterans Administration clinic.

“I had literally a matter of days to make a decision about how to bring jobs downtown through the VA clinic,” he says. “We found a solution that will lead to 50 to 100 jobs, with 50,000 people per year coming to an area that has been too quiet for too long. And, we’re doing it in a way that will save taxpayers money. So we’re racking up some points. But, we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Although he says that consolidating South Bend’s economic direction is a long-term proposition while he is in office, in the shorter term, he plans to outline the specifics of his economic development strategy at a special economic summit this summer. While those larger plans are still being fine-tuned, the Mayor has been taking steps toward boosting existing businesses and attracting new ones.

“Every few days I’ve been meeting with local businesses, in order to learn about them and their needs,” he says. “The biggest thing I hear about is that they need the right kind of people in order to grow. I think that is partially the city’s responsibility to make sure that happens.”

With this in mind, Mayor Buttigieg has been meeting with South Bend Community School Corp. officials to explore ways the city can support efforts to boost the local workforce’s skill levels. He also has been meeting with the leadership of South Bend’s colleges and universities, to build on an already strong foundation of town-gown partnerships that have been vital to South Bend’s economic development.

“We have all the building blocks here that plug into the knowledge economy of the 21st century,” he says. “We have to make sure we can put those building blocks together.”

Another top priority is to make City Hall more business-friendly. By taking businesses by the hand and guiding them to the answers and solutions they need, the city can create conditions more conducive to new investment and growth.

When it comes to tax incentives, Mayor Buttigieg says they can play a role in supporting South Bend’s businesses and attracting new ones to the area. However, improving on the fundamentals will be far more crucial when it comes to spurring economic growth.

“If we don’t succeed when it comes to roads, schools, safety and the ease of doing business here, we’ll never lure businesses here with tax incentives,” he explains. “Tax incentives can help as tie-breakers, but the fundamentals are what I’m responsible for. They will be the biggest driver of success in economic development.”

The Mayor also sees regional cooperation as another new direction for South Bend’s approach to economic development.

“If we continue to view this as a zero-sum game, we’re not going to get where we need to go,” he explains. “A win for the region is a win for South Bend.”

But, he cautions, if a South Bend business moves away to another city in the area, that would be cause for concern and would need to be examined carefully, to prevent it from happening again.

Not picking ‘winners and losers’

When it comes to strengthening and growing specific industry clusters in South Bend, Mayor Buttigieg says advanced manufacturing is critical.

“We’re very good at sophisticated advanced manufacturing, and no matter how far we go into the future, manufacturing will always be important for our economy,” he says. For this reason, he again emphasizes the need to “double down on our advantage” by improving the right skill sets in the local workforce.

“We also have strengths when it comes to data centers and the data industry, so we need to make the most of that,” he adds.

But at the end of the day, Mayor Buttigieg emphasizes it is not his mission to choose certain industry sectors over others — “picking winners and losers” as he calls it. Instead, he says his job as mayor is to create the conditions for the right kinds of businesses to succeed, based in large part on South Bend’s competitive advantages.

“Our biggest elements of competitiveness have to do with our geography, our infrastructure, and in many ways our favorable costs of doing business, from data bandwidth, to electrical power, to land and labor,” he proudly points out.

South Bend’s Ignition Park also is another important resource that certain prospective businesses will find attractive, he says. By leveraging its advantages and building on the previously mentioned fundamentals, the Buttigieg administration hopes to transform South Bend into a national destination of innovation and growth.

“I want South Bend to be full of organizations that are nationally recognized for their quality, even if it’s in a small area,” he says.

Tire Rack, Press Ganey, the University of Notre Dame and the Midwest Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery are just a few examples illustrating how South Bend already has a strong foundation of nationally known businesses and organizations. Make no mistake, the Mayor has wasted no time in proactively reaching out to new businesses and business decision-makers thinking about coming to South Bend and creating jobs.

“Often, the mayor is the top salesman for the city, and that’s a role I embrace,” Buttigieg says.

Quality of life, and the road ahead

Safety is key to improving the quality of life in virtually any city, and South Bend is no exception. Mayor Buttigieg has made this a priority, and he notes that he and his team have been working closely with the South Bend Police Department to identify safety priorities and opportunities for improvement. Additionally, the Mayor has been building relationships with federal and county agencies, and with other communities, to coordinate and streamline efforts to make the city’s neighborhoods safer.

In particular, Mayor Buttigieg sees the reduction of vacant and abandoned properties, which enable crime, as vitally important. Toward this end, his administration organized a vacant and abandoned properties task force — a diverse coalition of homeowners, city and county officials, local businesses and other entities.

“It is a collaborative organization that draws on a lot of entities that can contribute to the solution," he explains. "One of the things I’m emphasizing in creating this task force is that there has to be a high degree of community participation from neighbors who know best where the problems are, and where the solutions might lie.”

If anything, Mayor Buttigieg is deeply optimistic about South Bend’s prospects for continuing its positive transformation into a vibrant regional center. With a strong foundation and significant participation from community members, the city “comeback” clearly is within reach.

“I think it is very important for everyone who lives here to take ownership of the city through volunteerism, participation and action,” Mayor Buttigieg says. “I can help organize and support it, but the people of the city have to fuel it.

“Right now we’re at a moment when people are ready to take risks, try new things, and pull together. So I think that’s a great strength and a great opportunity.”


Publication Date: 
February 2012
Article Type: 
Focus On