At first glance, the two cities don’t look much different. Both are northern “suburbs” of a large metropolis. Both have a vibrant, walkable downtown filled with shops, boutiques, art galleries and locally owned restaurants. Both cities are creating new jobs and drawing in younger, affluent residents. Both have great schools and a variety of housing options. Both cities are growing at an exponential rate. And both cities have frequented Money Magazine’s Best Small Cities in Which to Live list multiple times.
The two cities are so similar, in fact, that they’re only separated by one spot on the 2012 Money Magazine list. McKinney ranks second, just shy of literally being the best place to live in the entire country. Carmel, Indiana is number one.
What makes Carmel, Indiana the best? TownSquareBuzz.com set out to find the answer.
Carmel is a suburb of Indianapolis, sitting less than 10 miles north of the center of Indianapolis. The city is roughly 50 square miles, which is about 2/3 of the size of the island of Manhattan in New York. Carmel began as a Quaker settlement in the 1830s and the city’s population has grown from 1,000 in 1950 to nearly 85,000 today.
What was once a sleepy Quaker hamlet is now a burgeoning city that’s constantly growing. What’s responsible for Carmel’s population growth? According to Carmel’s long-serving mayor, Jim Brainard, it’s the quality of life.
“The city has excellent schools, a big sports and recreation center, a performing arts center, and wide bike lanes,” Brainard told TSB. “All that, plus a variety of housing options ranging from older homes to new subdivisions, and you have an irresistible draw for families.”
Brainard would know about the quality of life in Carmel. He’s been Carmel’s mayor since 1996. And with Indiana’s strong mayor system, in which the mayor also serves as the city manager, he’s been responsible for many of the improvements made to Carmel over the last two decades.
Brainard said that those improvements were vital to the growth of Carmel. “We do not have a river or any waterways,” he said. “No mountains. No seashore. We’re flat as a pancake. So we have to work harder on the built environment.”
First on the agenda was establishing a true downtown for the city. “We identified and made the decision as a community that we wanted an identifiable, urbanized, walkable downtown, plus all these beautiful suburban neighborhoods,” Brainard said.
This consisted of two massive projects. First, the city utilized “old village” section of their downtown, a four by eight block area that was the only section of the city on an old-fashioned grid, and turned it into the city’s arts and design district. “We did that knowing that that area wasn’t large enough to be a downtown for our eventual size,” Braniard told TSB.
We do not have a river or any waterways. No mountains. No seashore. We’re flat as a pancake. So we have to work harder on the built environment. – Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard
Brainard said the arts and design district now features 65 arts and design related businesses.
Then the city purchased a large parcel of land four blocks south of the arts and design district, where there was a vacated retail strip center. “The city bought 100 acres and master planned a new downtown for that area,” Brainard said. “We built a $200 million dollar performing arts complex, including a concert hall.”
Around the performing arts complex, the city built a walkable downtown area that, according to Brainard, is drawing scores of people to the city. “They’re moving here because of the walkability of our downtown area, where they can buy a house and walk to restaurants and walk back home and not have to get in the car,” Brainard said.
“We know that people are also moving here because of our performing arts complex,” Brainard said. At the performing arts center’s recent annual gala, they welcomed Liza Minnelli, Rita Moreno, and Jimmy Webb. “It could have been New York City,” Brainard said. “It could have been Lincoln Center.”
A look at the upcoming calendar shows Smoky Robinson, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, and many others scheduled to be performing in Carmel in the next few months.
He said that people are choosing Carmel over many other suburbs around Indianapolis. “We talk a lot to people who say ‘we were living in another suburb and we came here and we immediately realized that we wanted to be in Carmel and not any of the other suburbs around Indianapolis,’” Brainard said. “Or we have people that grew up in a different suburb, maybe 40 miles away, and moved here because they were spending so much time here.”
Another reason people are coming to Carmel is because of the amount of outdoor activities available to its residents. The most prominent example of this is the Monon Greenway, which is a converted railway. “We took this old rail bed and turned it into a trail project that goes, in fact, all the way to downtown Indianapolis,” Brainard said. “Plus it connects to our other 126 miles of trails throughout the city.”
Brainard said the goal is to connect all of the city’s neighborhoods using the city’s trail system. “Bicycling is huge here,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of natural amenities and we have a lot of people that commute within the city. We’ll get 10,000 people on the trail on the weekend. Most of our community amenities are lined up along that trail.”
Another unique feature of Carmel is that is the nation’s unofficial roundabout capital. In fact, Carmel currently has 82 roundabouts and only 35 traffic lights. Brainard is a major proponent of roundabouts, often traveling around the country to speak about their benefit. Brainard did some of his graduate work in England and decided to install some roundabouts in Carmel once he became mayor.
According to Brainard, “A roundabout will reduce injury accidents when contrasted to a stoplight with the same amount of traffic volume by 80 percent. An 80 percent reduction in injury accidents. And a 40 percent reduction in all accidents.”
Brainard said that driving into a roundabout forces a driver to slow down and by limiting the speed of cars through an intersection, it allows for greater reaction time which drastically reduces the amount of high-speed collisions.
Brainard said that roundabouts can handle 4-5 times the traffic capacity of a normal traffic light and they are much more cost efficient for both the driver and the city. “We’re saving about half a million gallons of fuel per roundabout per year,” Brainard said. “And at four dollars a gallon times 41 million gallons, that’s a lot of fuel. That’s $160 million dollars for the public every year.”
Brainard said that roundabouts save the city a great deal money as well. “They’re also cheaper to build (than stop light intersections). Stop light equipment in a non-hurricane area costs about $150,000 per intersection. Plus you have to maintain it.
We landscape the middle of our roundabouts. We figured we can buy a lot flowers and flower urns for the cost of a stoplight. So it really does save us money. And people in Carmel love the roundabouts.”
Another interesting quirk about Carmel is that the city does not allow billboards within the city limits. According to Brainard, the billboards are all stacked up on the US Highway 31 just before the road curves into Carmel. “Then for the next five miles, there’s nothing. No signs at all.”
As for the people of Carmel, Brainard said that Carmel has the fifth highest percentage of college graduates of any city in the country. “Something like 65 percent roughly of our population over the age of 25 has a college degree according to the US Census,” he said. “And about a third of our population has a graduate degree.”
Brainard said they’ve worked hard to attract those types of people to Carmel. “To get the creative class: the young doctors, architects, etc., you have to be able to compete,” he said. “You build the quality of life and they will come.”
Brainard said that having that type of workforce in Carmel helps to bring large companies to the city. Add the Money Magazine ranking to Carmel’s selling points and it makes Brainard’s job of economic development a lot easier. “I used to go meet with site selectors in New York and Chicago, and especially the New York guys; they’d be looking at their watch after two minutes,” Brainard said. “They’d say, ‘Where you from? Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa?’ Now I plop Money Magazine down in front of them, and we get their attention.”
The city’s number one ranking brings Carmel’s residents a lot of pride as well. “For those that already live here (in Carmel), I believe it affirmed their decision to reside here and instilled additional pride in and loyalty to Carmel,” Carmel City Council Member Sue Finkham told TSB.
Nancy Heck, Carmel’s Director of Community Relations & Economic Development, agrees. “Carmel was and remains very excited about the #1 ranking and we have worked the ranking into most of our presentations, publications, events, etc.,” she said.
As for number two, Brainard said he hadn’t even heard of McKinney before the list came out last year. But he’s certainly heard of McKinney now. “I saw pictures of downtown McKinney,” he said. “It looks beautiful. I’d love to visit and see it.”
So what sets Carmel apart from McKinney? Is it the arts complex, the roundabouts, the hike and bike trails? Only the editors of Money Magazine know for sure. But without a doubt, ranking in the top two of the Best Places to Live list has impacted both cities greatly and is a result of years of hard work. And it’s nice to see that hard work recognized and rewarded.
Editor’s Note: If you missed Ben Lane’s look at McKinney, one year after the Money Magazine No. 2 ranking, please click here.