Many of Indiana’s counties are awash in excess industrial, commercial and residential property. In my county alone, about a quarter of all factories and store spaces and perhaps one in eight homes are vacant. Most of this property will never again be used for its original purpose. More than half of Hoosier counties can tell a similar story.
The homes and commercial property will be leveled and the land repurposed, but industrial property is another matter. The types of structures that comprised early 20th century factories are less simply repurposed. Three-foot concrete pads, hundreds of tons of brick and steel, and persistent environmental remediation needs plague these properties. Without radical thinking, these former factories will stand as ugly, gated monuments to technological change.
Many of these places lie in amenity-starved regions, so the highest use of this excess property will often be in crafting public places that will attract and retain households. The failure to do this is, after all, one reason that these regional economies lag today. There are many types of things that could be done. For the sake of illustration, I offer one example—a sports facility.
A large industrial facility will often have several key ingredients of a multipurpose sports facility; land for parking and fields, utilities and floor structures capable of supporting the heaviest of facilities, such as a swimming pool or hockey rink. The vast space within many of these places would be sufficient to support a wide variety of others activities.
To be clear, the cost of refurbishing these facilities is still significant. It will never be less than several million dollars to transform a vacant factory into a usable swimming pool with gym space, bleachers, commercial areas and parking. Still, the idea has some merit, and one need travel no farther than the rapidly growing towns in North Carolina to see attractive alternative uses for redundant tobacco warehouses.
During the past decade Indiana’s economy has fared better than much of the nation. Still, only a dozen or so counties have grown faster than the nation as a whole. The remaining 80 or so are in decline, and for most places in the state this is a 50-year trend.
The transformation Indiana must undertake in the coming decades is large. These types of proposals will require honest appraisal from local governments, as well as some risk. It is happening in some places. Recently Muncie forgave $20,000 in back taxes owed on an industrial site so it could be transformed into an urban farming and compost facility.
Reversing the excess property issue will require thoughtful private investment and public investment that doesn’t displace more fundamental public services. Indiana communities must focus on attracting people, knowing the jobs will come with them. We ought to embrace our past; it has largely been a good one.
The factories that fueled that past can animate the future. A Borg-Warner or Chrysler Natatorium would be much welcomed additions to amenity-starved cities and towns across our state.