Ask Me Anything: Jim Brainard, Mayor

Over the course of his record seven terms, Carmel became one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and soared to the top of “Best Places to Live in America” lists. He’s been invited to speak all over the world about city planning. Here is his exit interview.
Photo by Tony Valainis

How do you feel about stepping down as mayor? You’re in the final stretch.

I’m excited about all the things I’ll have time to do. Twenty-eight years is a long time. It’s an intense job, particularly as we’ve taken on big challenges. The city’s grown from 25,000 residents to more than 100,000 during our administration’s tenure.

When you first ran for mayor did you ever envision seven terms?

I wanted to do two terms. Carmel didn’t have a mayor until 1976. They had a town board government. It became a city and elected its first mayor in 1976. Only Jane Reiman had two terms. I wanted to be successful enough to have at least two. But then you find out we’re in the middle of some really exciting things. We’re attracting some brilliant people from the private sector who gave up higher-paying jobs to work in city government. You’re always in the middle of a project you want to see completed.

So, it sounds like you got hooked.

Yeah, I got hooked, and I loved it. And I had a lot of pressure from friends and others who liked the direction Carmel was moving in to run again.

What was the biggest issue you faced when you first took office?

Getting the city positioned for the growth I knew was coming. I wanted to be more efficient so that we would have the money to build a beautiful city. That involved doing 56 annexations. Some were small, like the farmer who sells 300 acres. But we did about eight really large, multi-square-mile annexations, and those were really tough. I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor that compared me to Hitler marching into Austria. I don’t think so. It was about getting the roads in so people could get in and out quickly and keeping a good tax climate. We have one of the lowest tax rates in the state.

What is your proudest achievement?

The Palladium. That was a big reach for a city of 60,000 people at the time. You know, it’s a true concert hall, not a theater. There aren’t many of those.

As I recall, you didn’t skimp, did you?

Lucas Oil Stadium, built three years earlier, cost $720 million. We spent $125 million on two small theaters, a concert hall, and a parking structure.

Many communities rely on sports, but not Carmel.

We wanted to do something to anchor our downtown. People wanted restaurants and small shops. We had to draw people in and make the area a true center where folks of different backgrounds could come together, feel some ownership, and get to know one other. Indianapolis did that back in the Bill Hudnut days with amateur sports. Actually, a lot of people said what we were doing was hurting downtown Indianapolis. I said no, it’s not. If we do it well, it’s a better package. The city was under-invested in the arts. We can fill the gap without directly competing.

Yet, critics worry about the money Carmel’s poured into City Center.

Yes, it’s cost us, but we’ve had billions invested in the area. There are townhomes across from the Palladium that the developer thought three years ago he’d sell for $400,000. One of the last ones just sold for $2.1 million. Another on Main Street was built for around $850,000 and sold a year ago for $2.4 million because people want to be here. So, yes, the initial investment in public facilities was a lot of money, but it’s paid off for us.

Carmel is synonymous with roundabouts. How many now? And how many stoplights are left?

We have 151 roundabouts today and are down to seven stoplights.

Why roundabouts?

I saw them when I was in grad school in England. I asked a lot of questions and learned how efficient they were compared to stoplights. If you’re sitting at a red light, say, at 9 p.m. and you’re the only car around, you’re burning gas. You’re wasting time and money, and it’s bad for the environment. They seemed a lot more logical. We made mistakes with the first one, so we hired a British engineer. He showed us how to make some inexpensive adjustments. It got a lot better. We have six more going in. Four are funded.

So Carmel will have one stoplight left?

Yes, and, ironically, that stoplight—at Main and Rangeline—was one of the first in the country. There’s a plaque there. That one is safe because there’s just not enough space to put in a circle.

Do you have a political role model?

Yes, Indianapolis mayors Dick Lugar and Bill Hudnut. I worked for both of them. They were great public servants and political moderates focused on representing taxpayers.

You’ve butted heads with members of your own party. Some might say you’ve ruled with an iron fist, somewhat reminiscent of Chicago’s Richard Daley. Is that fair?

That’s fair. A lot of people in Carmel didn’t want change. There was a lot of pushback at first. The only question in my mind was, Will change be good or bad? We had to get ahead of it with infrastructure and good planning. Otherwise, Carmel would have been like any other suburb of Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Detroit. Sometimes you had to be a bit of a bully to push things through. The staff would want to try to get consensus from the council. I’d say, “I don’t care about consensus. I care about one more vote than 50 percent.”

President Biden won Carmel by four percent. Is it turning blue?

I don’t know if it’s more Democrats—or the change in the Republican party, now dominated by what used to be considered the fringe or crazy people. You may quote me on that. It’s the Republican party changing more than Carmel becoming more liberal.

Do you plan to stay in Carmel?


What will you do with your free time?

IU Press has asked me to do another book, so I’ll get to work on it. I’m on several boards. The national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is fun because they’re building a trail from Seattle to Washington, D.C. It’s going to be the Appalachian Trail on steroids.

And what about your leisure time?

I’m not going to lie around and watch TV. I like to bicycle. I’m trying to get my embouchure [lip technique] back in shape for the French horn. I also play my piano a little bit every morning. My other big thing is snow-skiing. I learned as an adult, so I’m not great, but I’m good enough. I look forward to doing that a lot more.

Do you ever read for pleasure?

The only time I allow myself the opportunity to read a novel is when I’m on a plane, because I don’t like doing serious work on a plane.

What’s the last novel you read?

I’m in the middle of one now, waiting for my next plane trip to finish it. It’s a great whodunit. They’re all trapped in a ski resort in the Swiss Alps, and someone winds up dead every few hours. But right now, I’m reading books on architecture, city planning, homelessness, and how to pave streets in different climates.

Any regrets?

Oh yeah, lots of things. I’d be more aggressive on the annexations early on because some projects were introduced just a bit too late.

Such as?

Some engineers suggested that instead of having all these developers build retention ponds, which are dangerous—[their water level rises and falls] depending on the rainfall—we do a big lake or reservoir and have the developers pay to pipe [water runoff] into that. But water runs from north to south, and there just wasn’t enough room on the south side. It was already built up. If we’d gotten on it a little faster, we might have been able to build a big Eagle Creek–like park of 1,000-plus acres. It would have been nice, with sailboats and swimming.

What will you not miss about the job?

The late-night calls. Carmel is one of the safest cities in the country, yet you still worry about crime, someone with a gun attacking people. But that will no longer be my responsibility.

Will it be hard to let go?

As I was analyzing whether to run again, I thought of the projects that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to get done. Then I thought, Wait a minute. I’ll be 98 years old! If I get to 98, I’ll still have a list of projects to do. So it becomes, Have we accomplished what we set out to do? We have—many, many times over.