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South Bend, a city of 100,000 in Northern Indiana, is no stranger to the challenges that face smaller legacy cities. Once the home of Studebaker, a car manufacturer with a reputation for quality and reliability, South Bend enjoyed years of prosperity from its industrial base and reached a peak population of 132,000. But in the years following, migration to suburban areas and the demise of Studebaker would take a toll on the city.

Beginning in 1960, South Bend experienced depopulation of the city center and a rise of concentrated poverty. Recent efforts by South Bend’s leaders, however, have faced this history head on, taking steps to reverse the trajectory of the city. The bolstering of civic capacity and investments in quality of place have resulted in considerable progress for this legacy city. For the first time in more than fifty years, South Bend’s population has grown.

Finding New Purpose

When a company town loses its company, it can send a community into an era of rediscovery. When Studebaker left in 1963, the physical remains of the company stood as a reminder of what the city once had. Beginning the 2000, the old Studebaker buildings were demolished to make room for a high-tech manufacturing and technology commercialization park as part of an aggressive brownfield remediation effort.

Known as Ignition Park, it was one of Indiana’s first Certified Technology Parks. The Certified Technology Parks program was created by the state government as a tool to help cities attract high-technology businesses. Designation as a Certified Technology Park allows for localities to recapture a portion of state and local tax revenue that can be used to develop the park.

The technology park also benefits from access to Metronet Zing, a 100 mile-long dark fiber network that flows underneath South Bend. By tapping into this asset, South Bend has increased internet connectivity speeds and decreased costs – which has enticed companies to conduct business in the technology park and around South Bend.

Ignition Park, which is located in the former Studebaker industrial core of the city, is the only dual site Certified Technology Parks in the state. The other site, known as  Innovation Park, is located adjacent to The University of Notre Dame – a private research university in the northeast corner of the city. The two sites work closely together, and Ignition Park often becomes the long-term home to projects that got their start at Innovation Park.

This collaboration illustrates the strengthened ties between the City of South Bend and Notre Dame. In the past, the two entities experienced from classic town/gown tensions. Notre Dame and South Bend existed as separate communities, without much thought to whether the success of one was linked to the success of the other. However, in the past decade or so that relationship has changed as leaders at Notre Dame and the city began to embrace the symbiotic nature of each entity’s long-term strength.

Talent Meeting Purpose

In recent years, a number of organizations in South Bend have focused on connecting local talent with the community’s needs. These efforts have resulted in a renewed sense of possibility – particularly among ambitious younger people – for imagining a future that honors the city’s past, but is not constrained by it. 

One successful recent initiative stems from another collaboration with the city’s educational institutions, including the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University at South Bend, Ivy Tech Community College and Saint Mary’s College, as well as Riley High School’s Engineering Magnet Program. The Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem (BCe2) is a partnership that pilots community-engaged, sustainable projects to address real-world challenges in South Bend’s Southeast neighborhood. The initiative provides experiential learning for students and helps bolster the community’s capacity to tackle problems.

The Southeast neighborhood has seen decades of disinvestment and decline. Like many urban core communities, it experienced declines in population, housing conditions, and the natural environment. Initially, the partnership was concerned with addressing the ecological health of Bowman Creek, a tributary that runs through the neighborhood.  But the initiative’s co-founders, engineers by trade, recognized that the ecological health of Bowman Creek depended upon the broader health of the surrounding neighborhood. By strategically partnering with Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns and the City of South Bend, what began as a single engineering project blossomed into a multi-disciplinary cross-sector initiative for positive community impact.

Now, with nearly 100 interns split into four cohort years, the breadth of the partnership’s activities has grown dramatically beyond improving the ecological health of Bowman Creek.  Interns continue to work on environmental engineering projects such as smart green infrastructure and adaptive reuse through tree nurseries and rain gardens, but they are also involved in broader efforts to revitalize the neighborhood through partnerships with community organizations like 466 Works Community Development Corporation and SOAR (Southeast Organized Area Residents).

The program has helped build the capacity of neighborhood organizations and residents to achieve their missions and confront challenges. Students worked with 466 Works to create a new website and logo for the organization, while also assisting with neighborhood planning. Southeast residents are central to all BCe2 efforts, and the initiative has helped to elevate the voices of the community members and encourage them to take on an active role in revitalizing their neighborhood.

The initiative also produces important results for students. BCe2 exposed STEM-focused students to real-world challenges, helping train them to think beyond the theoretical and assess the impact on real communities, especially those that have been marginalized. The program has also expanded the opportunities for non-traditional and underrepresented students in STEM by recruiting a diverse group of interns from the local community college as well as four-year schools. The internship with Bowman Creek provides these students with the confidence and experience to transition to a fulfilling career.

Attracting and retaining talent in South Bend after graduation is the goal of an innovative fellowship program called enFocus. Building on the opportunities presented by the proximity of Notre Dame, the program recruits recent STEM graduates to work as consultants on challenges facing local government, businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

Acting as a lower cost alternative to management consultants, enFocus fellows help build the capacity of their client organizations while also gaining valuable work experience and building a network with local leaders. Fellows are paired with a mentor, who helps them build relationships with decision-makers in South Bend. enFocus fellows also gain management experience during their term by managing a team of interns who assist on their projects.

Early results of the program haven shown success in retaining recent graduates in South Bend and the region. More than 70 percent of fellows remained in Indiana after their fellowship term. The program is also closely tied in with other capacity-building efforts in the city, including BCe2. An enFocus fellow serves as the team leader for BCe2, and enFocus board members also mentor BCe2 participants. To date, more than 600 fellows and interns have gone through the enFocus program, completing 120 civic innovation projects across 60 different organizations – with an estimated impact of $50 million.

The election of South Bend’s current mayor Pete Buttigieg in 2012, resulted in a new burst of energy in the local government sector. The new young mayor oversaw pay increases, reorganizations of city departments, and other “tune-ups” that increased energy and pride in city government. This renewed excitement in City Hall persuaded more local talent to consider public service, since they felt they would be able to make a significant impact on their community.

South Bend Reinvented

South Bend has worked tirelessly to redefine what it means to live in a former “company town.” While retooling themselves for a new, tech-driven economy, South Bend has made strategic moves to increase the quality of life in the city.

South Bend’s downtown, like many smaller legacy cities, utilized high-speed, one-way roads to get people through the city as quickly as possible. Officials described it as the equivalent of a highway moving through the middle of downtown. As a result, the walkability and vibrancy of the city center suffered. In a bold move, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced Smart Streets, a project that would completely overhaul a large section of roads going through downtown South Bend.

The project reworked the one-way roads into two-way roads, slowed speeds, added protected bike lanes, and installed three new roundabouts. These improvements have brought huge amounts of economic investment into the region’s urban core. Already, $90 million of private investment in South Bend’s downtown is was attributed to Smart Streets. With nearly 1,000 new housing units downtown, a vibrant nightlife, and unique dining options, downtown South Bend’s experiment with placemaking has paid dividends.

The effort to rework South Bend’s downtown have been complimented by an historic amount of investment into the city’s parks. The city established a new department that handles all of the components of placemaking – called Venues Parks and Arts. This department emerged from the combination of several existing city departments and functions. Following the vision set out in a 2005 comprehensive plan, the city invested heavily in redeveloping the city’s riverfront. The bend in the St. Joseph River (the city’s namesake) had been underutilized in recent years. In partnership with local businesses, the city funded River Lights, a permanent artwork installation that incorporates LED lights that are responsive to motion and sound. The installation, which has become a focal point for the riverfront, is just one of the many improvements that the area has seen.

The new department also engaged in a master planning process to strategically invest $50 million into the city’s parks and green spaces. In order to prioritize where money was spent, the department relied on combination of data and community engagement. The five-year master planning process, which began in 2014, included a wide variety of public engagement opportunities – from Spanish-language meetings to online chats. In addition, the department also used data to reveal places that were severely underserved in an effort to make sure the investments served all areas of South Bend in an equitable manner. Th department received the Indiana Parks and Recreation Association’s Award for an Inclusion Program of Excellence in 2017 for these community engagement efforts. 

The state of Indiana has also been an important partner in South Bend’s investment in quality of place. The South Bend/Elkhart region was selected as one of the initial recipients of state grant dollars through the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative, a state matching grant competition that encourages local stakeholders to work as a region to create long-term economic development plans.

The North Central region, where South Bend is located, received $42 million in state matching dollars to implement their plan, called “Innovate Indiana.” The plan emphasizes place-based economic development, with the understanding that quality places help create the conditions for new talent and business attraction. As such, the program has funded high-impact projects like the restoration of the façade on the Studebaker Building, investments in new parks on the St. Joseph River, and improved rail connections between South Bend and Chicago. Importantly, all of these projects correspond to a larger development plan for the region, and complementary projects are taking place in other regional cities and towns.

A New Identity

In the past several years, South Bend has begun to transform its image on the national level, but more importantly, it has improved quality of life and rejuvenated a sense of pride in its residents. Through civic engagement, public investment, and shared vision, South Bend has started to shed its reputation as a dying company town to become a hub of innovation and civic pride. Like any community, the process of sustainable and equitable revitalization is long, but South Bend is now equipped with new tools and experiences to tackle challenges more effectively.

Strategies Used:

Build civic capacity and talent

  • enFocus recruits fellows to solve complex challenges for local governments, businesses, and non-profit organizations
  • Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem invests in neighborhood residents and students to address challenges in disinvested neighborhoods
  • Structural changes and “tune-ups” in city government have attracted new talent to public service

Encourage a shared vision

  • Coordination between University of Notre Dame and the City of South Bend has increased opportunities for both entities

Expand opportunities for LMI workers

  • Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem works with non-traditional students at the local community college to provide opportunities to gain experience and confidence

Build on an authentic sense of place

  • Smart Streets Initiative created more pedestrian and bike-friendly spaces downtown
  • Department of Venues, Parks, and Arts is investing $50 million into parks improvements
  • Regional Cities Initiative funding is paying for the renovation of historic Studebaker properties

Focus regional efforts on building a strong downtown

  • Regional Cities Initiative provided $42 million for projects such as restoration of the facade on the Studebaker Building and improved rail connections.
  • Venues, Parks, and Arts invested heavily in South Bend’s riverfront
  • Smart Streets brought more dining and residential downtown

Engage in community and strategic planning

  • Venues, Parks, and Arts Department won Indiana Parks and Recreation Association’s Award of Excellence for their master plan

Stabilize distressed neighborhoods

  • Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem works in South Bend’s historically disinvested neighborhoods, particularly the Southeast

Strategically leverage state policies

  • Regional Cities Initiative provided $42 million through a matching grant competition that encourages local stakeholders to work as a region
  • Certified Technology Park program allows the city to reinvest state and local tax revenue into improvements for the high-tech park

Header Photo: Wikimedia Commons