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City spotlight: Bloomington.

It's not hard to find accolades about Bloomington. They're all over the media.

Money magazine, in its annual survey of the best places to live in America, this fall ranked Bloomington 42nd among the nation's top 300 metropolitan areas. The rating, the highest of any Hoosier city, assessed health, the crime rate, the economy, housing, education and 35 other quality-of-life variables.

In 1988, Psychology Today and Bicycling magazines placed the home of Bob Knight, John Mellencamp and 60,000 other diverse individuals as the seventh-least stressful city in the country and the seventh-most biking-friendly. That was nearly a decade after former Little 500 rider Steve Tesich practically immortalized the Indiana University campus by creating the movie "Breaking Away."

Even though academic rankings can be as subjective as basketball officiating. IU continues to score high as an outstanding place to study music and theater, business, journalism, foreign languages, public and environmental affairs, biology, psychology, recreation and optometry. Smithsonian magazine called IU's music school "not only the nation's largest, but one of its best."

Indeed, the presence of IU and the diversity it has attracted have given Bloomington a unique feel, says Tom Hunt, president and general manager of WTTS-FM and WGCL-AM in Bloomington. "This market is unlike any other in the state. The market is very eclectic, very tolerant and very artistic," he says. The attempt by Hunt's FM station to capture that mood with progressive rock, folk and blues has generated significant interest in Indianapolis, where the station's signal is strong. "We can reach out and sell Bloomington. We're basically exporting the Bloomington mystique to 29 or 30 other counties."

Still, as today's alumni find IU students looking younger and younger, and former "flower children" and football stars grow into successful business people, Indiana's eighth-largest city increasingly breaks away from its image as solely a college town. True, Bloomington was listed among America's top 10 college towns last year in New York Times' How to Get into the Right College, and Thomas Gaines, author of "The Campus as a Work of Art," rated the IU campus the nation's fifth-most beautiful. But Rand McNally and others also have placed Bloomington among America's top 10 retirement areas. In singing the praises of a "balanced community," Bloomington-area civic and business leaders pay homage these days to the strong role of manufacturing, tourism, construction, retail trade and the medical professions in "everybody's favorite college town."

The accolades the city collects make it easy for civic, business and academic leaders to step up on the soapbox. "Something is working," says Thayr Richey, former executive director of the Indian Department of Commerce and now an economic adviser to local officials. An example of things working was a fall planning meeting in Mayor Tomi Allison's office. The mayor met with the three Monroe County commissioners and Gary Shelley, economic-development specialist for PSI Energy, to discuss coordinating the economic activities of Bloomington, Ellettsville and the other towns and outlying areas of Monroe County.

The meeting was but one example of a growing partnership between area officials and business leaders in creating a favorable economic climate. The past year was marked by economic achievements: a new economic-development director was hired, the local chamber of commerce reached its largest membership and the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. (BEDC) launched a fund-raising campaign in order to aggressively market the area to prospective clients. Business leaders have embarked on a process of locating and developing prezoned sites for business and industry. An attractive inventory of vacant buildings already exists, says Linda Williamson, new BEDC executive director.

To observers of Bloomington's clamorous debate over its updated master plan during the past two years, all this might come as a shocker. Some developers called the master plan a "no-growth plan" and bristled that the plan redirects growth from the busy east side near the College Mall to the west side along the city's Indiana 37 bypass. Some developers contend that the master plan was an attempt to "socially engineer the marketplace," and city officials' prolonged deliberation last year of environmental factors surrounding a proposed west-side Wal-Mart complex angered residents and growth advocates alike. Yet, consensus has emerged that local officials the past year or so have disproved Bloomington's bad rap as a community unfavorable to growth. There's no evidence to support criticism that local officials are "anti-growth," says Shelley, who worked on loan to BEDC before Williamson's arrival in April.

Among the evidence: Monroe County officials came forward late last year with a 10-year tax-abatement package for General Electric, which announced a $126 million expansion of its side-by-side refrigerator plant. City officials also introduced a tax-increment-financing district, where tax proceeds are earmarked for infrastructure improvements.

City planning director Tim Mueller has spoken openly of the need for consensus-building following the fractious master-plan debate, and says the master-plan process is often misunderstood as zoning ordinances are revised to implement it. "We need to have land zoned in advance for industrial development," he says.

Discussion of a diverse economic base only mirrors Bloomington's diverse population and resources. Although first and foremost a college town, Bloomington's 8,900 manufacturing jobs outnumber the 6,500 faculty and staff employed on the IU campus. With its strong appeal to alumni, sports enthusiasts, arts buffs, conventioneers, shoppers and restaurant-goers, the area each year attracts 1.5 million visitors who pump $162 million into the local economy, making tourism the third-largest industry, notes Valerie Pena, executive director of the Bloomington-Monroe County Convention and Visitors Bureau. A diverse array of stores, restaurants and shops helps make the city a regional service center, and expanding medical facilities--coupled with the Cook Group's various medical-instrument production facilities--position it well as a medical center. The area also is home to a vigorous construction industry, providing jobs to some 2,300 contractors and tradesmen.

In committing to a balanced economy, community leaders need only look at IU's recent funding troubles with the state legislature to realize that nothing nowadays is a foregone conclusion and that the national and world economies exert tremendous pressures. About 400 workers laid off at Otis Elevator during the past two years--following a drop in demand for elevators as construction of high-rise office buildings leveled off--offer further evidence.

"You have to grow to stay even," says Douglas Wilson, IU's vice president of university relations and new president of the Greater Bloomington Area Chamber of Commerce. Wilson notes that IU's own growth rate has slowed the past five to six years, and tuition's continued rise above the inflation rate may help explain why enrollment at the Bloomington campus dipped slightly this fall from last year's all-time high of 36,000, down to 35,500. Wilson also notes that "demands on the university keep going up."

As new chamber president, Wilson gives a poignant example. Early this year he and local officials rolled out the red carpet to Great West Casualty Co., a Nebraska trucking-insurance company choosing between Bloomington and another college town, Lexington, Ky., for a regional headquarters. Word was received in February that Great West had decided upon Bloomington and local officials were ecstatic: An expanding national company with high-paying, high-skill jobs was coming to Bloomington. But two weeks later the bubble popped: Cleo Inc., a division of Gibson Greetings, announced it was moving operations to Mexico, and Princeton Packaging, a plastic-film products firm, said it was consolidating operations in another city.

But several recent high notes illustrate Bloomington's economic virtuosity. In addition to GE's world-class expansion bringing 120 to 150 new jobs beginning in January. Thomson Consumer Electronics recently completed a 633,000-square-foot distribution center at the world's largest television assembly plant and is gearing up to produce high-definition TV. K&W Products, a maker of automobile car waxes, recently moved its corporate headquarters from Los Angeles and expanded its production facility in Bloomington's enterprise zone.

In addition, CFC Inc., Cook's real-estate arm that was heavily involved in downtown redevelopment during the '80s, will render an encore performance in helping convert the 200,000-square-foot former Showers furniture factory into a downtown office and research park. City offices will move to the site and IU is expected to assist in the transfer of technology to high-tech and research entities there. A new medical park developed by physician and former IU football star Daniel Grossman near the 37 bypass has spurred plans for clinics, a surgical center and cancer-treatment center.

In late summer, 140 members of the Coalition for Positive Progress, a new business group, turned out to support the proposed expansion of Interstate 69 through Indiana, long known as the "Indianapolis-to-Evansville highway." Hometown U.S. Rep. Frank McCloskey, former mayor of Bloomington, was on hand to say some $50 million has been authorized or allocated toward the project in Indiana. Extension of I-69 "would bring us up to par with Seymour and Columbus" in attracting new industry, says Jim Regester, new BEDC president.

In Bloomington, everyone wants to get in on the act, whether in the meeting hall or the marketplace. From corporate giants to gourmet restaurants, contractors to tanning salons, pizza parlors to educational publishers, people in varied specialties often "want to test the waters," says David Miller, director of the Small Business Development Center. For example, in the shadow of the country's largest music school, cottage industries have tuned up to make harp strings, violin bows, clarinet mouthpieces and music stands. Miller concludes, "Bloomington is a very entrepreneurial community."
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Title Annotation:Regional Report: South Central
Author:Baird, Bob
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Top business news: South Central Indiana update.
Next Article:Columbus Container.

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