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South Bend, Ind., Could be a Glimpse at the Future of Mid-Sized Cities

Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his staff have formed a partnership with the University of Notre Dame that has made South Bend a magnet for talent and new businesses.

The Studebaker plant in South Bend, Ind., shut down in 1963, leaving a lasting mark on the town.

The six-story, 800,000-square foot building is still there. First built in 1923, the hulking brick structure has long overshadowed other signs of vibrancy in South Bend, including a stadium where a minor league baseball team plays.

For years, it seemed as if the plant would be demolished. Now, however, the factory has been repurposed for new businesses. A woodworking outfit, a company that uses technology to precisely fit custom images to paper cups, and, perhaps most encouragingly, a data center enticed by South Bend’s low real-estate costs and cool weather, as well as access to fiber-optic connection speeds, now call the building home.

In a field just past the plant, there are other signs of economic growth, including more tech businesses and a co-working space — the type once exclusively found in coastal megacities such as San Francisco or Seattle.

“This building now, which was a symbol of our decline, is going to be a symbol of our renewal,” said South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Many factors can spur resurgence, but in South Bend, Buttigieg has aggressively supported tech, innovation and data-driven governance at City Hall, as well as in the community. Buttigieg, a South Bend native who lives in the same neighborhood where he grew up, has also worked to create better collaborations with academia in the area, including the University of Notre Dame.

The result has been new momentum for a city once plagued by blight, as well as lessons to be learned for other cities. To that end, Buttigieg was a keynote speaker in December at the annual summit for the MetroLab Network, which was launched in 2015 by the Obama White House to help foster and support partnerships like the one between Notre Dame and South Bend.

At the MetroLab event, the mayor talked with Government Technology about his city. Buttigieg, who took office in 2012, said that while some progress was in motion when he arrived (including a smart sewer system), one vital component was absent.

“What was missing was the confidence that we could do this at a big scale, and that we could harness our old manufacturing base into this,” he said. “A lot of what was missing more than anything was that level of confidence, the city just didn’t believe in itself, which for a data guy like me sounds like a very slippery, qualitative thing to say, but it’s one of the things that’s shifted. People sort of feel like they have permission to believe in the city now.”

There hasn’t been any one magic bullet to make the city confident in itself. In fact, the more Buttigieg talked, what emerged was a story about momentum built by a series of varied and smaller pushes, rather than by one great big heave.

Brain drain, for example, is a problem Midwestern cities like South Bend, home to roughly 101,000 residents, have to confront. It’s a problem where a city’s most talented people decide to leave, often in pursuit of better jobs or bigger communities.

To combat this, Buttigieg said, you start with the basics, such as improving public safety and roads, before moving on to quality of place, such as enticing restaurants, coffee shops and other places people enjoy. This is pretty standard. What South Bend has done differently is to use a service-oriented sense of purpose to make its community appealing.

Working with Notre Dame, South Bend offers a one-year program that brings recent graduates of the school into local government, where they work on solving community problems by completing projects with tech and innovation. For participants, Buttigieg says this often means turning down jobs that pay better and are located in areas considered more desirable.

“Why would you do that?” Buttigieg said. “Because it’s interesting and because it’s important, and what we found is that the more we offer people a chance to work on things that matter, the more willing they are to relax some of their preferences around pay, or living in a really big city. Then they wind up having a level of ownership over the city that inspires them to stay involved.”

This could mean continuing to live and work in the city, as it did for South Bend CIO Santiago Garces, a native of Bogota who attended Notre Dame, participated in the program and now lives and works in South Bend. For others it could mean going off to have a successful career elsewhere, before returning to South Bend one day to start a new company or create other economic opportunities in a place that was once formative for that individual. To date, the program has a 75 percent success rate of keeping participants in the city.

“If going to Notre Dame doesn’t mean only going to Notre Dame — it also means having a relationship with South Bend — then for the rest of their lives, they’re going to carry that with them,” Buttigieg said. “That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about the higher level of engagement that students have with the city.”

South Bend as a municipality is not the only stakeholder with an interest in improving the quality of life in the community. These days, a world-class research institute like Notre Dame is also actively invested in making sure that South Bend is a nice place to live and work, because it has to compete with colleges in communities like New York City, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, for both students and faculty.

This partnership has been invaluable in building confidence throughout South Bend, a stark contrast from when Buttigieg took office in 2012. He remembers that back then the tech presence in City Hall was basically limited to an IT function, or someone who would come and fix a computer if it broke down. The city had to launch an innovation department from scratch, creating a 311 center, which was a Buttigieg campaign promise, in order to generate the data that public servants and academics both needed to learn more about the community.

Moving forward, Buttigieg said that it will become increasingly important for cities to collaborate with each other, to share what works and what doesn’t as part of an effort to solve mutual problems.

“I think the national environment politically pushes cities to work more with each other because it’s the last area left that’s authentically bipartisan, or nonpartisan, and really focused on results and delivery and objective information,” Buttigieg said. “I think you’re going to see more growth in that area, especially tackling tough challenges. It just feels like if the cities don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.