As Carmel turns into a winter wonderland, we sat down with Jim Brainard to reflect on his seven terms as the mayor. It is hard to imagine Carmel without Brainard as mayor. He says he would likely have continued practicing law and had more time to play his beloved French horn if he had not been elected.
It is difficult to summarize the list of accomplishments because Carmel has morphed into an entirely new city on his watch. At the beginning of his term, Carmel had a population of 20,000 and was on track to be like many other suburban cities that consisted of neighborhoods of nice homes, good schools, and a sea of parking lots. When Brainard took office, he asked people what they wanted, and they spoke of the great cities in Europe and New England. Brainard noticed a theme emerging: people wanted public spaces to connect, such as parks, plazas, and, most importantly, a downtown. Mayor Brainard grew up in Bristol, Indiana, and that experience shaped his desire for community and spaces to connect. “I grew up in a small town where everybody knew each other. We have unfortunately designed cities where you cannot go for a walk anywhere that you need to go,” he says.
After studying other cities, he knew the key to creating public spaces was to create density. One of the barriers he had to overcome was above-ground parking. Underground parking costs twice as much as above-ground parking, so Brainard had to think outside the box to cover the cost. The city used tax increment financing, borrowing against future revenue based on the development to pay for the parking.
Monon Square is an excellent example of this strategy, as it previously consisted of 85% parking and a one-story retail building that paid $61,000 in annual property taxes. Once the parking was underground, it allowed for the development of a five-story retail building that pays over $3 million in annual property taxes. That future revenue allowed the city to spend more upfront to get the parking underground.
Another benefit of public spaces is a chance for people to get to know each other personally. It fosters bringing together people of different backgrounds to unite on common ground.
“We are a Nation of immigrants, people of different faiths, different backgrounds, different races,” Brainard says. “We need to focus on building places, which I think are the keys to our civic wealth, where people of all these different backgrounds have opportunities to get to know each other and learn what they have in common. I am talking about parks, plazas, city centers, and concert halls.”
Speaking of concert halls, Brainard is most proud of building the Palladium concert hall. He had observed that Indianapolis had been built around sports and decided to make Carmel the arts center. As a musician, it is unsurprising that Brainard is passionate about the arts. However, this was not just a personal preference. It was also fiscally responsible since the average arts patron spends much more than the average sports fan. Carmel had a fantastic downtown, and Brainard wanted to ensure people used it. He knew events were key to ensuring people supported the downtown his administration had created. The Palladium was built in 2011, and between the various spaces can hold around 2,300 people. This provides a steady flow of people into Carmel’s downtown.
Another major accomplishment is creating the Carmel Christkindlmarkt in 2017. In 2015, while serving on President Obama’s Task Force on the Environment, Brainard was sent to Germany on a speaking tour, where he visited multiple German cities. Since his trip occurred in late November, his hosts in each new city took him to their version of a Christmas market.
“I kept thinking we need to do this in Carter Green — this would go over so well in Carmel,” he says.
While there were other German Christmas markets in the US, Brainard wanted ours to be different and to mirror what he had seen in Germany.
“We insisted on authenticity. Everything must be authentically made in Germany. The only departure from authenticity that we allowed is that we have a Hanukkah booth, and we thought that made sense for purposes of inclusivity. Other than that, everything in our Christkindlmarkt could be in Germany, and no one would know the difference,” says Brainard.
The Christkindlmarkt is one of Carmel’s crown jewels, drawing twice the number of people that attend the Indy 500 during its six-week run. It is an annual tradition that makes Carmel feel magical and creates opportunities to create holiday memories with loved ones and new friends each year.
Brainard loves the holidays, specifically Christmas. He has many fond memories of taking his kids on holiday ski trips. Brainard loves Christmas music from “Silent Night” to “Silver Bells.” While in Germany, he got to see a photo of where Silent Night was written, and it was a lovely small chapel. He imagines a quiet, snowy night when this lovely, simple song came to be. Brainard loves spending Christmas in Carmel for the Ice at Carter Green, the shows at the Palladium, and, of course, the Christkindlmarkt.
As Brainard reflects on his career and his many accomplishments, the thing he will miss the most is the people. He will miss his incredible staff and interacting with the residents of Carmel. He also acknowledges the incredible transformation of Carmel during his term and credits his team.
“We have some extremely talented people. They have given up higher paying jobs in the private sector because they were excited about the thought of building a new city,” he says.
When his term is up at the end of this year, Brainard intends to stay busy. He is working on a book and plans to spend his free time with his grandkids, travel, ski, and play his French horn with the Indiana Wind Symphony. He might even practice law again or do some consulting. He feels so much gratitude to the residents of Carmel for their trust in him for all these years.
“It has been a great honor to be trusted by the electorate for so many years to build their new city. It was a great responsibility that my staff and I took very seriously. I saw this as an obligation we have to the people who voted for us and trusted us to do this properly,” he says.
As the holiday spirit surrounds us in Carmel, I imagine Mayor Brainard at home on a quiet, snowy night, playing “Silent Night” on his French horn as downtown is bustling with families enjoying their new city with the magic of holidays all around.
I grew up in a small town where everybody knew each other. We have unfortunately designed cities where you cannot go for a walk anywhere that you need to go.