Under Pence and Buttigieg, South Bend sees mixed economic results

By Lucas Masin-Moyer and Juan Jose Rodriguez • May 15th, 2017

Downtown_South_Bend_Above_St._Joseph_River

A view of downtown South Bend above the St. Joseph’s River. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of 2016, Mary Grace Sikorski was forced to close her restaurant, Spaghetti Joes on the west side of South Bend due to lack of business. A few months before Sikorski closed shop, Stephanie Mirza and her husband bought the Innisfree Bed and Breakfast just south of Spaghetti Joe’s and have seen massive success since taking over this past August.

Sikorski and Mirza’s business ventures reflect the mixed bag of economic development in South Bend under then-Governor, now Vice President Mike Pence, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg since the two were elected in 2013 and 2012, respectively.

The South Bend area, specifically, has been influenced by two major players outside of Pence and Buttigieg, whose roles in the economy weigh heavily into the region’s economic development.

“The Chamber of Commerce, they are working really hard to make South Bend a place for people to come and the visit South Bend people,” Mirza said. “There are just so many initiatives going on. And of course there is the university. Notre Dame has an orbit itself that brings people here, so there are kind of these two operating things that are more and more interacting together.”

Since 2013, the unemployment rate in South Bend has fallen from 10.5 percent to 4.8 percent, along with the rest of the state, where the unemployment rate fell from 8.4 percent to 4.1 percent.

This divergence in unemployment numbers, in which the state level is 0.7 percentage points below the city level, is representative of a greater trend across economic measures. The median income in of those living in St. Joseph’s County ($45,248) lags behind the state average of $50,532.

Dan Graff, a history professor at Notre Dame, attributes this discrepancy to the loss of industrial jobs in the area.

“You don’t talk to South Bend residents for very long and ask them about the economy and they don’t still bring up Studebaker,” he said. “ … [The plant] closed in the 60s and people are still talking about it. So it has been somewhat of a long-term problem. I think there’s been periods of hemorrhaging of industrial jobs in the wake of NAFTA in 1994.”


movie_play_blue2Animation: Google Earth timelapse showing the transformation of South Bend


This departure of the core of the economic sector led South Bend’s population to decline from its peak in 1960 of 132,445 to around 100,000 in 2010. This number, according to census estimates, has begun to rebound in recent years.

The mixture of positive signals (lower unemployment) and negative signals (lower median income and population decline) show the mixed nature of economic development in South Bend, a city where economic success is possible, yet far from a guarantee.

Economic Failure in South Bend

For Sikorski, the decision to pursue a lifelong dream of opening Spaghetti Joes was the result of a perfect blend of timing and desire.

“I was fed up with corporate America,” she said via an email interview. “After 15 years at my job, my position was eliminated. The same thing had happened after my first job out of college — I was at that one for 12 years. So I wanted to work for myself.  I also loved to cook and always had a dream of opening an Italian restaurant, so the time seemed right.”

Sikorski determined the name for her restaurant per Italian naming customs. When many members of a family have the same name — stemming from their being named after their own fathers or grandfathers — then the identifying characteristic becomes the skill around which the individual built his livelihood. With five “Joes” in the family, and Sikorski’s grandfather being known as such among his family for his passion for cooking Italian cuisine, the choice was simple for the new establishment’s name.

The fairytale of owning the family restaurant did not last long. After only eight months of operation, Sikorski was forced to close the restaurant, citing a lack of business rooted in low demand.

“The area was terrible for a restaurant,” she said.  “I should’ve done more research before deciding on the location, but it was literally two minutes from my home.”

Spaghetti Joes management photo

Spaghetti Joes owner Mary Grace Sikorski (center) alongside her father, Domonick Vito Corpora (left) and brother, Rev. Joe Corpora, C.S.C. (Photo/Mary Grace Sikorski>

Sikorski added that the restaurant industry was too demanding to justify continuing operation of the restaurant.

“I ended up going back to work for ‘the man,’ and it was far too taxing to keep up both the full-time job — which at this point was paying the bills — and running the restaurant,” she said. “Even with business at the restaurant declining, it was more than I could handle long term.”

Sikorski’s failure can be attributed, in some part, to the loss of South Bend’s industrial economic base. When Studebaker left South Bend in 1963, the rug was pulled out from under the city, who has still yet to recover completely after more than a half-century of stagnation.

This stagnation has made it harder for small business owners like Sikorski to succeed with less money flowing in and out of the city. In turn, Graff said, resources are restricted, and the number of jobs paying people a just wage and keeping them safely out of poverty has continually fallen since the early 1960s.

“(South Bend) used to have a much more significant industrial base, [but] the jobs that have disappeared or have moved away have not been replaced by jobs that pay the same,” he said.

The lack of economic success in the area was reflective of a larger nationwide trend which has shrunk the American middle class, Graff said.

“I refer to this nationally as a chronic crisis that we’ve been dealing with, the disappearance of stable long-term middle-class jobs for 40 or 50 years now,” he said. “You usually think of a ‘crisis’ as something momentary or a short period, and it’s chronic in the sense that it’s an ongoing thing. It long predates the Pence administration, and it’s bigger than Indiana too.”

Economic Success in South Bend

When Stephanie Mirza and her husband moved back to South Bend in 2016, they decided to take a leap and decided to purchase a unique home which doubled as a bed and breakfast.

“When [my husband] found out [he] had a position [at Notre Dame] to come back to … we looked at housing and he saw this place, he’s like this is amazing,” she said. “How often do you have the opportunity to not only buy a house but buy a historic home that’s also a bed and breakfast? We met the previous owner, asked her all sorts of questions like, ‘What in the world are we doing?’ She said it’s not that bad, it’s a lot of fun so we went for it and it’s worked out.”

 

Since purchasing the Innisfree — an Irish-themed bed and breakfast adorned with Gaelic symbols and with rooms named after famous figures in Irish history — the Mirzas have seen booming business, something Stephanie attributed, in part, to a revitalized South Bend.

“South Bend, since we left five or six years ago, has changed a lot. We left when it was at a low point and we come back and see life and interest and attention coming to this area which is good for us, good for our business,” she said. “The river lights [are] a beautiful addition, the Four Winds [Field], that’s a big deal. I think we’re going to see a lot more business because of that.”

InnisFree photo

The Innisfree Bed and Breakfast, on the west side of South Bend, was purchased in mid 2016 by Stephanie Mirza and her husband. The inn has seen success since the in the months since it came under new ownership. (Photo/Lucas Masin-Moyer)

Mirza’s success, and that of other small businesses in the region, has been helped by city-level initiatives spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. These initiatives, Mirza said, were aimed at improving the outward appeal of business, thereby helping them to grow income.

“The city has initiatives for small business,” she said. “If you want to improve the outside of your business and you’re within this radius of downtown, you can get grants to do that. I applied for one to work on the exterior part, it can’t be just for maintenance it has to be some new signage or some new … improve the look on the street.

Overall, Mirza said operating a business in South Bend has been a positive and successful experience.

“It’s been great,” she said. “We just moved from Berkeley, California, so it’s kind of a major shift as far as cultural and things like that. But the environment here has been really receptive and positive. People really genuinely want to help out.”

Town and Gown: How Do Notre Dame and South Bend Make It Work?

By Madison Riehle and Allie Hoerster • May 14th, 2017

Before the University of Notre Dame’s economic and social influence gained traction, the city thrived off of the business and jobs created by the Studebaker automobile plant. At its height, the company employed 7,000 people, which was eight percent of South Bend in 1960, according to the Studebaker National Museum.

When the plant closed in 1963, both the population and the economy took a hit, with 20,000 residents leaving the city over 40 years, putting South Bend on Newsweek’s 2011 list of “America’s Dying Cities.”

Despite this, and due to recent pushes and changes in South Bend’s government and the sustained effort of new Notre Dame programs, South Bend is transitioning, experts and officials say.

“The city is growing and developing, it has some really positive areas.” said Jackie Burns Rucker, Associate Director of Community Relations for the University of Notre Dame. “It is a thriving community that has a large alumni population here, and has a really rich history.”

The City of South Bend and the University of Notre Dame are inextricably linked by a long-standing symbiotic relationship. As one of the largest enterprises in the St. Joseph County area, Notre Dame plays an integral role in the city’s economy, which makes community outreach initiatives and programs measures all the more important.

Juxtapose: The development of Eddy Street Commons over the last 14 years.

“There’s a symbiosis between the community and the University that we recognize more than ever, and I think communities around the country are recognizing this, so we talk a lot about the mutual benefit of our partnerships in a way that we can use our expertise on campus,” said Jay Caponigro, director of community engagement in the Office of Public Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

The Office of Public Affairs is just one of the ways that Notre Dame has involved itself in the community. Its goal is to build, maintain and support the community of South Bend by engaging Notre Dame students with city residents. The projects that the Office of Public Affairs executes revolve around the education and enrichment of South Bend children.

“Our after-school program is very diverse—we will host events here at the center, and we have an after school program that is 2nd through 4th grade,” Rucker said about the Center for Arts and Culture. “Within the after-school program, the first hour is literacy based and the second hour is arts and culture enrichment. I utilize art and culture to try to help build relationships.”

The Center for Arts and Culture is just one of the many sites that Notre Dame students and faculty invest their time. More than 945,850 hours of community service work is performed by more than 2,250 Notre Dame students and more than 360 University faculty and staff during the 2014-15 academic year, according to a 2016 economic survey of Notre Dame.


Blue map pin iconStoryMap: Notre Dame’s impact on South Bend


Similarly, academic courses engage students with the local community through entrepreneurship opportunities and funds, as well as community-based research, which is run by the Center for Social Concerns and includes an out-of-classroom service element.

“With the community-based research, you see a lot of Catholic social teaching coming up as part of the justification for getting involved in those projects,” Caitlin Hodges, Notre Dame Student Government Director of Community Relations, said. “That’s the language you’ll see replicated at just about every level of Notre Dame when they are doing something like that.”

This kind of engagement is understood as growth in human capital — and is the most important factor for economic growth, as it leads to higher educational levels and future funds.

Aside from time investments, Notre Dame is the leading employer in the South Bend area, employing around 5,700 South Bend residents. In fiscal year 2015, the University spent nearly $168.5 million on purchases of goods and services, excluding construction, from businesses in St. Joseph County, according to a report on a 2016 economic survey of Notre Dame.

360-Degree Perspective: Step into South Bend’s southeast neighborhood.

“We know that we have to have infrastructure locally that will attract people to come to Notre Dame,” Caponigro said. “We want to make sure there are learning opportunities in the community, not just on the University campus.”

Notre Dame also focuses its community efforts on maintaining the overall look of the community, as well as ensuring that student housing does not override affordable housing in the neighboring areas.

This includes the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization, which aims to build residential housing off of Eddy Street Commons through in the Triangle Residential District. Notre Dame is also making strides to maintain housing through the Notre Dame Avenue Housing Project.

“I think that’s a big conversation right now with gentrification,” Hodges said. “what happens when so many students are moving off-campus, and there’s a really good market and that’s how you’re going to make money, but that used to be a house where a family could have afforded to live. It’s not good or bad, but it’s balancing and sometimes it feels like it’s not very well-balanced.”

Through this mutually beneficial relationship, the city has grown, both in population as well as technology as the city’s population is up for the first time since 2000. Along with this, projects like Innovation and Ignition Park have begun to expose the area to new creative solutions to city problems, as well as provide support for student and local entrepreneurs.

“At the end of the day, it’s important for our leadership at multiple levels,” Caponigro said. “If our community doesn’t succeed, Notre Dame will not succeed — not at the level that we want to.”

Map: Buttigieg’s Campaign Trail for Democratic National Committee Chairman

By Lucas Masin-Moyer • February 26th, 2017

In a surprise move, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race for Chair of the Democratic Committee (DNC) Chairman on Feb. 25, and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, was elected.

Despite Perez’s election it was Buttigieg, heralded as the future of the Democratic Party, who perhaps made the most noise.


Buttigieg, the first openly gay executive in the state of Indiana, former Rhodes Scholar and veteran of the War in Afghanistan, campaigned across the country in his unsuccessful bid to run the Democratic Party.

Over the course of his campaign, Buttigieg received endorsements from former DNC Chairmen Howard Dean and Ed Rendell. Track Buttigieg’s campaign trips in this interactive map: