The End of An Incredible Era: Mayor Jim Brainard on His Decision to Not Seek Reelection
As a journalist, I have covered seven-term Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard for well over a decade, and Carmel Monthly has covered many of the city’s major initiatives and developments since it began publishing in 2012. Through the years, we have had a remarkable seat to the dramatic changes that have occurred in one of the country’s most dynamic cities. Carmel has become a textbook for the evolution of a small, rural, midwestern city to one that annually is recognized repeatedly on national lists that recognize the cities that are the most livable, safest and best places to live, work and play.
Mayor Brainard announced on September 13 that he will not seek reelection in 2023, inking the end of an extraordinary tenure that has completely redefined and reimagined the city of Carmel. And love him or not, Brainard will go down in history as one of the nation’s most influential mayors — not to mention the mayor that put Carmel on the global map for infrastructure improvements, for building walkable cities and of course, as the roundabout capital of the U.S.
And for these reasons, we are honored to feature Mayor Jim Brainard on this month’s cover.
A Contract with Carmel
In 1995, Brainard devised a “contract” that he shared with voters while campaigning for the mayor’s office. In that contract, he committed to focus on “taxes, growth, spending, families and the future of Carmel,” and he vowed to focus on a wide breadth of issues facing the city at that time. These included areas of focus such as:
- Finding ways to acquire new park land and improve family-based recreational opportunities
- Proposing budgets that are realistic, frugal and goal-oriented
- Working closely with our schools to achieve a partnership that focuses our resources on our most important asset: our children
- Managing growth properly and responsibly
- Getting street improvements back on track
Growing Carmel into a World-Renowned City
Over the past two decades, the city of Carmel, under the leadership of Mayor Jim Brainard, has grown from a rather typical north suburban car-centric city to a world-renowned city known for its infrastructure, development and redevelopment, arts and entertainment, diverse culture and, of course, roundabouts. Most cities would take a few centuries to achieve the milestones that Carmel has in 20 years. The city has become recognized as a model of modern urban planning around the world.
Since Brainard took office in 1996, several improvements to the city’s infrastructure, the development of the outlier areas and redevelopment of the inner core have been started and completed, and new major projects are in process as the city continues to grow and evolve.
In 1996, the city’s population was less than half of the current population of 100,777 and the city’s road system was more than antiquated. Those of us who have lived here prior to the redevelopment of the Meridian Street corridor can remember a time when what is now West Main Street came to a halt at U.S. 31 [North Meridian Street] and the only option was to turn right onto the highway heading southbound. We also remember an abundance of stop signs and streetlights that made navigating the city a time-consuming chore. These have now been replaced by 144 roundabouts with more under construction. We also remember several blighted areas throughout Carmel — the most infamous being the Carmel Motel — that have been transformed into some of the city’s more attractive landmarks: The Monon Greenway, the City Center, Midtown, the Center for the Performing Arts and Clay Terrace.
Brainard explained that in 1997, there were a lot of unincorporated “holes” throughout parts of Carmel, and it made for inefficient delivery of services. “A blue car (Carmel city police) would go to the house on a street, and a brown sheriff’s car would go to the house next door,” Brainard explained. “A part of a street would be paved by the county, and the next half of a mile would be paved by the city. It made no sense at all. That’s one of the reasons why our tax rates have declined, because we’ve become much more efficient as a result of the earlier annexations. These improvements were important to the tax base that we built over the next decade and a half.”
When asked about what he saw as key moments in Carmel’s development, Brainard responded, “The Monon Greenway, the roads and infrastructure (including the roundabouts), maintaining low taxes and a good tax climate [and] our City Center and Arts & Design District, in addition to our great schools and library, are some of the amenities and projects that I am most proud of. All of our cultural amenities too, as it’s unusual for a suburb to have what we do. We have more diversity, and as a result, more corporate headquarters are locating here because they know that all of their employees will enjoy living here.”
Although Brainard’s seventh and final term as mayor will end in December of 2023, he continues to work on projects that are important to him, such as the infrastructure improvements in Home Place and the expansion of the city’s bike path system, among other projects throughout the city.
Reflecting on a Seven-Term Career
After winning his first mayoral election [by 10%], Brainard shared that he continued to seek input from his constituents and asked them what they wanted for their city.
“Over and over again, I heard that [residents] wanted a walkable city, restaurants and shows, a ‘downtown’ and parkland,” Brainard recalled. “These things have defined cities for centuries. I was learning more about city planning, and back in junior high when you were asked to write about what you might want to be, I wanted to be an architect. That was one of my three areas of interest in addition to history, and when I was first elected, I thought that in a way, I was going to get to be an architect.”
As a history major, Brainard has been a study of trends and has been able to look at things in a historical context and why particular trends happen.
“We didn’t get over 25% car ownership in this country until after World War II, and so what we [as a nation] had done — and I figured it out very quickly — is that we designed cities for cars, not people. So, how do you get a walkable, pedestrian-friendly, traditional city going, and what were the legal and financial hurdles? My legal and financial background helped us figure that out — hence the public-private partnerships.”
Lacking a guidebook on navigating a global pandemic, Brainard’s leadership saw the city through the unknowns of COVID-19, and the city continued to plan and push though the “Great Recession” of 2008 and any other turbulent or challenging times throughout his tenure. And the city has come through any and all events on the other side, stronger and even more resilient.
“I never thought we’d be dealing with something like this [pandemic] in my last term,” Brainard said. “There was no manual for that, but we came out of it as a community. We continued to work on some projects through it, and all of the construction that you see today were plans that were being made [at] the height of the pandemic. There were a lot of unknowns at that time, but we knew that we’d eventually come out of it.”
Making difficult decisions and taking a stand on social issues, albeit controversial to some, has also been part of the job, and I reminded Brainard that he was the second Indiana mayor to speak out against Indiana Senate Bill 101, titled the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA). In 2015, Brainard drafted an anti-discrimination ordinance as the city’s response to the senate bill when it was first proposed. The mayor’s anti-discrimination [ordinance] narrowly passed the city council 4–3 in October of 2015.
“I got a lot of calls from concerned CEO’s during that time,” Brainard recalled. “A community can’t thrive and grow unless everybody is welcome — it just can’t. We’ve been making that point from day one: that Carmel has to be a welcoming place for every faith, place of origin and background. That’s pretty much what the country was founded on, and the city of Carmel is no different. It all seems very basic to me.”
When asked if Brainard has met all or most of his benchmarks that he set for himself in this final term, he thoughtfully replied, “Generally speaking, yes. We’re far enough along in the downtown developments, and those will continue. We’ve got this great park system in place that we didn’t have until 1996, and that’s going to continue forever. What I would like to see is some internal public transit in the downtown area. We’ve been studying it, have had a lot of discussions about it and we’ve been working with a consultant. So, I’d like to see that come to fruition at some point, and hopefully, I will have an opportunity to help whoever is the next mayor with some of those things.”
Brainard concluded, “We tried to go back to the basics, and when you look back through history at the empires and cities that were successful — like classical Rome — they figured out how to move goods and people around safely and efficiently. That hasn’t really changed much. Designing cities is still about roads, moving people around and bringing people together from different backgrounds, [and] providing good educational opportunities, and that hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. We figured out how to get our suburb focused on building a traditional city, and that’s what made the difference.”
Notable Objectives Met During Brainard’s Tenure
1995 – Brainard defeats incumbent Ted Johnson and wins election
1997 – Carmel’s first roundabout is constructed [126th Street and Hazel Dell Parkway]
2002 – First section of Carmel’s Monon Trail opens [96th to 146th streets]
2003 – Carmel completes its largest annexation
2005 – The unveiling of the Arts & Design District gateway
2006 – The Carmel City Center project breaks ground
2008 – Reconstruction of Keystone Avenue commences
2010 – Carmel annexes Southwest Clay
2011 – The Center for the Performing Arts opens
2016 – Carmel hosts events for the 84th Annual United States Conference of Mayors
2017 – Brainard and committee open Carmel Christkindlmarkt
2018 – Carmel annexes Home Place
2019 – Midtown Plaza opens
2020 – The Hotel Carmichael opens amid COVID-19 pandemic
2022 – City breaks ground on expansion of Carmel Police Department headquarters