Pathways for an Inclusive and Resilient Economy in Indianapolis
The goal of the December 18 event, “Indianapolis After the Covid-19 Pandemic,” was to hear from a cross section of Indianapolis leaders on their efforts to open the economy in a way that is inclusive and creates resiliency for the future, explained Garvester Kelley, regional program lead for community and economic development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. This virtual discussion was the 12th in a series of Project Hometown events that have brought together civic leaders, researchers, policymakers, Chicago Fed staff, and interested community members across the Seventh District.
Charlie Evans, president of the Chicago Fed, remarked that communities across the District have suffered from the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, and those in underserved communities have experienced the greatest negative effects in terms of business closures, job losses, and negative health outcomes associated with Covid-19 infection. “We need comprehensive and tailored approaches to address the unique challenges of each community,” Evans said. Exactly one year ago, Evans took part in a discussion with leaders of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership and the Economic Club of Indiana, remarking “I was struck by the strong public/private partnerships that existed in Indianapolis, as well as the strong legacy of civic engagement.” Evans added that “strong anchor institutions” have provided a valuable source of support early on in the pandemic and on a continued basis.
Michael Huber, president and CEO of the Indy Chamber, moderated the event. The chamber serves over 2,000 member businesses with the goal of growing the economy of Indianapolis inclusively. The Indianapolis region has faced incredible challenges as a result of the pandemic, Huber reported, and the pandemic is disproportionately affecting communities of color. He spoke of his appreciation for healthcare workers, teachers, and minority-owned, small businesses hit particularly hard by the pandemic. There has been a greater awareness of racism and racial inequality in Indianapolis following the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, explained Huber. Among elected officials and the private sector in Indianapolis, there is now an urgency to take action because “not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s in our long-term best interest as a community and as an economy,” he explained.
Vop Osili, president of the Indianapolis City-County Council, reaffirmed Huber’s comments on the importance of inclusiveness, remarking “while the case for racial equity can and does rest squarely on moral grounds, I believe the concept of equity will play an enormous role in our economic recovery and growth in a post-Covid Indianapolis.” Currently, there is a wide racial wealth gap, Osili pointed out, with the median net worth of White households in Indianapolis 13 times that of Black households and 10 times that of Latinx households. Addressing wage disparities between employees of color and White employees would help to boost the local and regional economy, he said. In support of diverse hiring, Osili noted that “research demonstrates that companies with more diverse workforces have higher revenues, more customers, and great market shares.” Panelist Pamela Ross is the vice president of opportunity, equity, and inclusion at the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), and her job is to make sure that each day the organization is working to dismantle racism in the city, she explained. CICF’s goal, Ross said, is to become “an antiracist multicultural organization.“ She is working toward greater awareness and ways to “reimagine” the Indianapolis economy. Changing the behavior of businesses on a large scale is needed to achieve goals for an inclusive economy, concluded Huber. Ross said she believes there has been a ”greater willingness but also intentionality of how we can do better,” including at the Indy Chamber.
With respect to basic needs in the city, Huber stressed that addressing the housing crisis is critical, particularly given the wave of evictions on the horizon. Indianapolis has among the highest eviction rates in the country, added Ross, and data collected by the CICF provide a clear picture of the negative impact of racism on the housing market, as well as on job prospects and poverty rates. There is a disparity in access to health insurance as well, Osili added, with Black residents 26% more likely to be without health insurance than White residents. The city does not have a robust enough safety net, Osili said, for those lacking health insurance or for those needing rental assistance, unemployment support, and food access, adding that if we don’t have additional support over the long term, “we are going to have to have difficult conversations about the budget.” “Wifi/internet access is also a critical basic need to be addressed,” added Juan Gonzales, market president for central Indiana at KeyBank. Financial education to expand access to online banking and resources is also greatly needed and is at the forefront of what KeyBank does, Gonzales added. Such education provides support to community members applying for mortgages and other online transactions, empowering them through “financial wellness,” he explained.
Addressing themes raised in audience questions, Huber asked, what are specific activities and action steps to achieve a more resilient and inclusive economy? Gonzales said Covid-19 vaccines are a huge first step, and access to jobs and financial capital are sorely needed, especially for small businesses. Huber concurred on the need to support small enterprises, particularly minority-owned businesses. The hospitality, food, and beverage industries have been severely impacted, and because they are engines for job and investment growth for the city, it is critically important these businesses get access to capital, said Gonzales. “These businesses are trying just to survive, and the next 60 days are going to be very important for them to stay afloat,” he said, adding that he is hopeful federal support will arrive quickly. Achieving an inclusive recovery will require becoming more aware and being able to reimagine approaches that draw on experiences from 2020, said Ross, adding that we need to build trust and “a commitment of time and authenticity.” Osili emphasized the importance of getting people back to work and investing in the city for the long term; having direct resources for rental assistance, food security, and small business assistance; and ensuring equity to meet the needs of “underappreciated” community members. Osili further emphasized the need to hear from a diverse community, be adaptive, authentic, and follow through on promises to build trust.
Gonzales reiterated the point made by Evans earlier that public and private partnerships are very important to strengthen the economy in central Indianapolis. “I want to reemphasize how critical the business community—the private sector—is to be part of the solution to some of these challenges that we are facing,” Gonzales said. He meets regularly with community partners, including from the city government, chamber of commerce, and philanthropic community to make sure that “we all have a seat at the table” and that “we are investing the dollars in the right places.” It is also important that young professionals, particularly young people of color are engaged in community efforts, he said, noting that the chamber and the CICF are actively involved in promoting this effort. Osili added that the Indianapolis City-County Council has a new Youth Council so they can hear from diverse voices and promote civic involvement for the next generation of leaders in Indianapolis.
Huber asked the panelists to summarize their thoughts on what failure to achieve an inclusive recovery would look like and what a successful recovery would look like. Ross replied that if we fail, it will look like a continuation of 2020, but if successful, we will be able to see how previously marginalized people in Indianapolis will flourish in an equitable economy. Gonzales said failure would mean we will lose many youth to other cities; otherwise, we “will be a center for talented people to move in and grow exponentially.” Osili commented that, “if we fail, we will have what we’ve always had…, but things have changed so much that failure will be even more robust.” If we are successful, Osili believes we will have an incredibly strong economy and fulfill the city’s potential. In a final remark, Kelley added, “there is no room for failure at a time like this.”