Why Bloomington And Monroe County Should Swing For the Fences Now

by May 28, 2021

Crossposted from the Herald-Times, this is Executive Director Pat East’s regular column.

As our community prepares to receive $50 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, I’d like to share my thoughts on how we might use it to transform Bloomington and Monroe County.

ARPA funds are the federal government’s direct response to COVID. The pandemic has undermined the health and economic wellbeing of American workers. More pointedly, it has highlighted that our society is not set up for everyone to succeed. America’s 650 billionaires saw their net worth increase by $1 trillion during the pandemic, while the labor force participation rate for women, because of childcare issues, decreased to a level not seen since the 80’s.

Because ARPA is a response to COVID, and more specifically, a response to the inequities it exacerbated, ARPA funds should be focused on addressing those inequities.

And what is the best approach to spending that windfall, in a way that benefits the most people possible? One approach is practical: spread it across many stakeholders and fill short-term funding gaps. Another approach is visionary: identify one or two transformational opportunities and invest deeply in those. The practical approach is easier to agree upon because everyone gets a sliver of the pie. But the systemic problems that led to the acute ones still exist, and over time, the gaps re-emerge.

While the visionary approach is harder to get everyone to agree upon initially, it benefits more people and for longer. Think of previous projects that were transformational for our community like Cook’s renovation of Fountain Square Mall, the creation of the B-Line Trail, or – we hope – the founding of The Mill. These projects changed the physical landscape, and they also created domino effects of investment and growth.

What are those one or two priorities today, that if demonstrably improved, move the needle for current residents *and* for their descendants? My suggestions for generational change are education and housing.

If every community doubled down on education and gave every child the tools they needed to succeed, we’d transform our country in a single generation: just 30 years.

There’s something wrong when students have to do their homework in the McDonald’s parking lot to get access to free Wi-Fi. How do we make broadband available to every single resident in Monroe County?

What if teachers no longer had to buy supplies for their students? What if we didn’t force them to make do, but gave them more resources?

Simply filling our current funding gaps to meet basic educational needs won’t be enough. We need bold, transformational ideas that improve the lives of our children.

What if we recruited the top teachers in each subject? What about the top coaches? What if all of our children understood how to lead? What if we found a way to implement Bloom’s 2 sigma?

What if we redistricted our elementary school to create a truly equitable learning environment, instead of one that is racially and socioeconomically divided?

While we can solve education in the long term, people are hurting right now. Our solutions must have an eye toward the future but still be actionable in the present.

City Council had some great suggestions and feedback to Mayor Hamilton’s ARPA proposal in April. Among the best was Councilmember Ron Smith’s idea of a down payment program to help more residents buy homes. It’s specific, actionable, and creates a short-term economic stimulus while working toward the long-term goal of more housing. It’s emblematic of the bold thinking we need. (Note that this is a similar program; Smith’s idea was to broaden the impact by spending all $22 million of the City’s ARPA funding.)

We could go even further by combining it with Councilmember Kate Rosenbarger’s idea to convert apartments into condominiums. Don’t rent them, buy them. That creates $75,000 homes instead of $250,000 homes. The former is the cost for a single-unit apartment and the latter is the average home price in Bloomington.

What if rather than building houses, the City enabled others to do so more easily? One of the biggest challenges to developing low-cost housing is the cost of infrastructure. Let’s use ARPA funding to roll out water, sewer, and electrical to development sites, and then make that infrastructure free to developments with houses priced under $250,000. Eliminating the cost of connecting to services changes the game.

Education and housing are just two ideas. There are thousands of others, all of which have support and solid defenses for why they should be implemented over others. But whatever your opinion is on specific ideas, I hope we can agree that the funds should be used for generational change. Let’s urge our elected officials to expand and elevate our thinking of what’s possible. Let’s urge them to act boldly and find the one or two priorities that remove the need for 100 others. We may not all agree on the final choice, but if it’s big and leads to generational change, we can all live with that.