Bloomington, Indiana is a small city of about 40,000 dominated by the presence of a large university (Indiana University), which dominates the local economy and job market and is, in terms of population (~40,000), roughly the same size as the city itself.
Bloomington’s key assets include:
- Its creative sector — largely because of the university, it can offer a rich cultural experience for residents and visitors.
- Employment in a small but seemingly stable pharmaceutical and medical products industry base (an asset, notwithstanding the fact that this industry is principally located out in Monroe County and not in the city).
- The beginnings of an entrepreneurial tech sector.
- Other IU-related amenities, including Big 10 sports.
- Low cost of living, from a national perspective. While Bloomington is a relatively expensive place to live by Indiana or Midwestern standards, it is a bargain from the viewpoint of people on both coasts. Much of Bloomington’s population in-migration is made up of retirees moving in from east and west.
Bloomington’s key issues include:
- An aging infrastructure, especially its water infrastructure.
- An inadequate tax base to maintain and improve that infrastructure, especially after 2020 — COVID hit Bloomington businesses hard.
- High housing costs — Indiana’s sixth most expensive housing market.
- A widely acknowledged (but only vaguely quantified) shortage of affordable housing.
- A thin employment base, dominated by a huge, parasitic university whose growth and refusal to house more than a small minority of its students is consuming the city and warping its real estate market to the point where Bloomington’s skyline is increasingly blighted with the multi-hundred-bed student housing developments that dominate the housing market.
- Painfully low employee wages — a high percentage of Bloomington’s workforce is not paid enough to live in Bloomington.
- A difficult legal environment in Indiana (e.g., laws prohibiting housing advocates from promoting affordable housing through rent control or inclusive zoning).
- A gap in the workforce (technical knowledge workers with several years’ work experience) that has limited Bloomington’s ability to spawn a technology sector.
- An alleged shortage of workforce housing.
- Inadequate mass transit.
In recent decades, Bloomington has been a virtual one-party city, dominated by its local Democratic Party, which in turn has been driven by a faction centered around two-term Mayor John Hamilton, who has generated much of the party’s funding (largely from out-of-town sources). Its approach is best characterized by:
- Aggressive pro-growth agenda.
- A strong doctrinaire policy aimed at pushing dense housing development into core neighborhoods, idealizing walkable access to Bloomington’s downtown retail establishments (not new to the Hamilton Administration — this has been a city ambition since the 1970s that has been forestalled repeatedly by neighborhood activists).
- Focus on developing a technology entrepreneurship sector based in the West Side Trades District, which has had, at best, mixed success.
- Awkward relations with the Indiana State Legislature and the Governor — much of this is a matter of partisan differences and the state Republican organization to suppress Democratic ambitions in Bloomington.
- A record of difficult relations between city government and the minority community.
- A record of criticism of the administration’s ideological rigidity and lack of transparency in pursuing controversial initiatives — the purchase of an armored riot control vehicle, financing of a $30 million downtown parking garage, a deeply unpopular policy toward the city’s homeless population, upzoning of its core neighborhoods through amendment of the Unified Development Ordinance, and forcible annexation of its suburbs.
- Pursuit of development with the support of a coalition of “YIMBY” development advocates and private equity backed real estate developers, pushing a questionable and poorly documented densification agenda with a vague climate change and social justice rationalization.
- A deep and worsening generational divide over policy, particularly regarding housing and urban growth.
Bloomington Dissident Democrats: Guiding Principles
Bloomington has a well thought-out Comprehensive Plan, the product of two years’ work by 85 dedicated citizens, signed by two Bloomington mayors, including John Hamilton. The Comprehensive Plan counsels the city specifically and repeatedly NOT to burden the core neighborhoods with multi-family housing, but rather to build out the city to gradually add dense housing in multiple walkable nodes or villages throughout the 25-square-mile footprint of Bloomington. The highly successful South Dunn Street development, with walkable access to retail amenities at Hillside and Henderson, provides a model for village development that should be replicated across the city.
The city should have followed the wise counsel of the Comprehensive Plan and NOT focused development on core neighborhoods close to the downtown square. We are committed to undoing this error.
Other fundamental principles:
- Not all growth is good growth. What’s good for Minneapolis isn’t necessarily good for Bloomington.
- Blanket densification might be justifiable in a large city running out of space, but that’s not Bloomington. Bloomington has no shortage of market rate rental housing.
- Bloomington can’t be expected to meet all of IU’s student housing needs. We seek a city government that takes a harder line with respect to the university’s responsibility to house its students.
- Neighborhoods matter.
- Historic preservation matters.
- Home ownership matters.
- Equity matters — even for individuals who are not in marginalized classes.