Chelsea Schneider, Innovations Content Manager, Aim
Under Mayor Scott Fadness’ leadership, Fishers has become a municipal powerhouse. Aim sat down with Mayor Fadness to discuss his long-term vision for the Central Indiana community, as well as an innovative collaborative proposal for Hoosier cities and towns.
You have led Fishers at a pivotal time for the community, originally as town manager and now as the city’s first mayor. Describe the dynamics of leading a fast-growing city like Fishers.
“I’m a bit of a product of the environment that I grew up in professionally. I started here as an intern in 2006 and had a lot of different roles. We were already a fast-growing town at that time, and there were a lot of things changing both externally and internally. And so for me, I’ve never known a different environment than one that’s full of change. Part of that has become second nature to how I operate. I feel very comfortable in fluid, fast-paced environments, and that’s probably part of the reason that I feel comfortable in change-orientated environments.”
What have you found most rewarding about your job as mayor?
“The most rewarding has been the team of people that I have assembled to do the work of what needs to be accomplished in Fishers. When you see what the team can accomplish, and when you push the limits of pace, breadth and depth and the complexity of the problems we decide to go try to solve – that’s really a fun thing to see and a fun thing to be a part of.”
Fishers is known for a high quality of place. As mayor, you’ve led several initiatives to bolster the community. Describe key projects you’ve overseen during your tenure that have made Fishers the vibrant city it is today.
“I think there’d be three things that started the transformation of Fishers. The first, is the co-founding of Launch Fishers, and focusing our efforts on all things around creating an entrepreneurial movement and ecosystem in Fishers. From that momentum, we now have the Internet of Things Lab and the Fishers Test Kitchen, both testaments to the entrepreneurial spirit in Fishers. The second is, the creation of an urban core to create a quality of place in our community where residents and visitors can gather to enjoy a dinner out, a free concert, or other entertainment. The third, is a bit unconventional, but leads to where I think mayors across our state will need to be focused, and that’s our mental health initiative. We can’t talk about creating quality of place without talking about quality of people. Our people are living in quiet despair, and so turning our attention to that is really vital. You would think that would be a natural fit with a mayor’s job description. But the reality is that the vast majority of mayors would not put down that part of their responsibility is the state of their people’s health. We take care of roads, economic development and police and fire, but if people are what’s driving the 21st century economy then that’s your most precious natural asset. If you’re not maintaining it and taking care of it, it leads to problems long term. We’re waking up to the fact we can’t turn a blind eye to some of the issues that we face.”
What can city and town leaders, regardless of their municipality’s size, take away from those projects and Fishers’ focus on livability?
“People ask me a lot about how we come up with these ideas. The source of it is actually maybe a little bit different in that I believe in looking around at what’s happening globally and trying to translate that into what we do locally. I think too many times city leaders get too focused on just the day to day and the delivery of services. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own community, which I totally understand because it can become all-consuming. Maybe it’s because I have such a good team around me, but I’m afforded the opportunity and the time and the bandwidth to really think about what’s happening in the world around us and trying to figure out how that translates into positioning Fishers to do well in that world. I think sometimes we don’t spend enough time thinking about those things.”
As mayor, you’ve been focused on a mental health initiative. Describe those efforts and the impact they’ve made on the community.
“We had to create a culture here, which is hard in a political realm, where we don’t mind naming the things that are problems in our community and taking action. In 2012, I couldn’t have even told you how many people died by suicide in my city. For many, that would have been a vulnerable place to be, but by leaning in to our problems, we’re able to come up with some pretty unique solutions. It’s typical to blame problems on somebody else versus saying to ourselves, ‘there are macro-level things that put us in positions where we are today.’ It’s usually never one person’s fault. But instead, we look at it from a perspective of approaching the problem collectively and without an ego to go about the work that needs to be done on behalf of the people.
For me, the mental health initiative started at 2 a.m. one night. I was doing a police ride along, which I try to do once every month or so. We were driving around, and I asked the officer which calls bothered him the most. And he said IDs, which I thought he meant checking someone’s identification. It turned out, that was incorrect. IDs are immediate detentions. In response, I asked how often that happened and he said once a shift. For me, I lived under the same kind of cloud of disillusion that everyone else did in that Fishers is such a great place that these things don’t occur. For example, that year we had gotten a number of accolades as a city for being such a great place, and I could tell you right off the top of my head that we had three homicides in 20 years. I knew that statistic. But I did not know, nor did my police department nor did my fire department, how many people had been immediately detained or how many suicides that we had. And lo and behold, that year I think we had 12 people die by suicide and probably 40 or 50 others make serious enough attempts that if medical intervention had not occurred they could have perished. And we had over 130 immediately detained. It just sent me down this path of realizing a problem, and discovering that we were not doing anything about it.”
It’s a holistic approach. What are the key aspects of the program?
“It’s about public safety. It’s about integrated mental health services in the schools. It’s about community culture, so bringing down the stigma, and it’s about public policy. Those are our four big tiers if you will. We are fairly well resourced as compared to a lot of other places, and we have a fairly transient population. We’re not cemented in old practice and dogma. Because of that, we have an opportunity, but we also have a responsibility to develop these proofs of concept, to develop these ideas, because we’re in an environment that’s very hospitable for it. And a critical part of our program is our passion to share lessons learned with as many different communities as we can that maybe aren’t afforded the same environment to spin something new up. When you look at entrepreneurship or mental health, we are proud of the fact we are out and have fingerprints in so many different places, in all four corners of the state of Indiana, because we believe we have a responsibility to share what we learned good and bad with our journey.”
What advice would you offer a municipal leader who is exploring launching a similar strategy to focus on the health of their community’s residents?
“Leave your ego at home because you will lose it quickly. There is nothing more humbling than trying to tackle something as complex as mental illness. Right when you think you’re kicking butt and doing a great job, you get a notification from your police chief of someone who has died by suicide. Secondly, I would say be in it for the long run. This is not a program where you can Tweet something and declare a victory. You have to be in it for all the right reasons. And whatever you build it has to be of substance, and it has to be systemic. It has to live beyond any political cycle. if you’re willing to do that then you have a shot of making a difference in the lives of people around this issue. This may sound harsh, but anything short of that you are doing a disservice to the people who suffer from mental illness.”
You’ve been a leader on legislative initiatives for Indiana cities and towns. Last session, Aim pursued legislation that would enable members of regional development authorities to raise local revenue to fund regional capital projects. Can you explain a little bit about how this proposal came about, and why this is an important piece of addressing our population problem?
“When you look at statistically how our regions are doing, they aren’t doing well in comparison to their competitors. At its core is this philosophical belief that we have to grow our way out of some of these systemic issues that we have in our state. By that, I mean we have to create this flywheel of investment and reinvestment, investment and reinvestment over a long period of time to really have any ability to transform the regions that we find ourselves living in. Today, there is no mechanism to do that. There is no revenue source to do that, so the whole point of regional investment hubs is to say, ‘Hey, as a collective group of communities if you want to play the long game and say over the next 20 years we are going to raise this revenue and invest it strategically in things that we believe will become an engine for additional growth and additional development in our cities then we should have the ability to do that.’”
How would Investment Hubs benefit all regions statewide?
“Ideally, getting more of these tools into the hands of locals, developing these proofs of concept, hopefully at some point will allow any region to come together and try to do this. Because of where I sit in Fishers, the idea came out of a problem we have in Central Indiana, but that doesn’t mean the framework isn’t applicable for Northeast Indiana, Northwest Indiana, Evansville and even smaller communities like Huntingburg and Jasper. It is rooted in the idea that collectively we can do more than individually.”
What is your long-term vision for Fishers, and what’s your next step in the process?
“When we first sat down and started thinking about where Fishers needed to go for the long-term sustainability of our city, I really did focus in on being smart, vibrant and entrepreneurial. That was our vision of what Fishers could become. I think the first three or four years since I’ve stood on the stage and said that’s what we are going to do, everything was a rush to create little examples of what that meant. I feel like we are crossing over the line of having to convince everybody that that’s a thing, and now we are into turning the gas on full boar and let’s go. The ultimate vision for me and this goes back to the point of thinking globally and acting locally, I hope we can create a culture in Fishers before I leave that change is the expected. The only thing I know is any city that is not prepared culturally to change at a speed faster than what they are today will not be successful in the world we are about to embark upon. The rate of change and the ability to adapt and evolve either internally within your government organization or externally within the community. If you can’t figure out how to speed up the rate of change, you are going to be fundamentally left behind.”