As city officials move forward on plans to spend up to $8 million from the Legacy Fund to lure higher education institutions downtown, City Council members and constituents need to mix their enthusiasm for great potential with a critical examination of the incentives’ intent and possible unexpected consequences.
True, colleges and universities bring in new people with new ideas, as Councilman Tom Smith said. And, he pointed out, universities tend to choose locations for the long term, maintain campuses well and often expand. As a downtown development tool, it has much potential.
But the Legacy Fund – financed with the lease and sale of City Light to I&M – is already tapped for other downtown projects. The emphasis on river development is largely focused on the rivers downtown, and a good possibility exists that more money will go toward the River North project at the edge of downtown. Changing traffic flows on Ewing Street and Fairfield Avenue are downtown projects. Corridor enhancements, way-finding signs and gateway improvements are projects intended to bring more people to a more-attractive downtown. Legacy money will finance a $1 million fund to buy downtown properties for future development.
That isn’t to suggest that the new higher education fund should not focus largely on downtown, but both the administration of Mayor Tom Henry and council members should not neglect other parts of the city. Had Manchester University applied for a grant to help with its College of Pharmacy near Parkview North, it would have been denied simply because it wasn’t downtown.
One great advantage of the Legacy Fund money is the ability to help make things happen that otherwise couldn’t. But the city’s two largest private universities are already making significant investments in and near downtown. The Indiana Institute of Technology is growing exponentially just east of downtown, and the University of Saint Francis has already launched a major downtown project in the blocks bordered by Wayne Street, Berry Street and, yes, Ewing and Fairfield.
It seems likely that Saint Francis stands to receive a significant amount from the fund, part of which could help reimburse the university for land already purchased. Legacy money could help Saint Francis develop its downtown buildings more quickly, but the university also seemed prepared to move forward on its own, much as Indiana Tech has. And just two months ago, the Capital Improvements Board – which has at its disposal another stream of government revenue that will eventually total well into the millions – turned down Indiana Tech’s request for $1 million to go toward its $16 million law school. The project is fantastic. What the university is doing is great, board President Ben Campbell said at the time. But the project is up and running without us, and the money is not needed for the project to occur.
Give the city credit for establishing solid criteria to receive a grant from the new Higher Education Fund. Schools seeking the money must be not for profit and be willing to make a long-term commitment of at least 20 to 30 years.
For every dollar from the Legacy Fund, the required match from a recipient college is $3. No single project will receive more than $3 million.
But the city will almost assuredly never have another influx of cash like the Legacy Fund, and City Council members should be sure to demonstrate due diligence for any specific request for spending from the Higher Education Fund.