SOUTH BEND — Jason Critchlow recalled the day when a woman knocked on his door, saying she was from Canada and wouldn’t be in town long. She asked him to point out the house where Pete Buttigieg grew up.
There was also the time Critchlow and his wife, Olivia, weren’t home but watched three women, one wearing a “BOOT EDGE EDGE” T-shirt, ring their video camera doorbell.
Critchlow lives on the same Northshore Triangle block as Buttigieg’s mother, Anne Montgomery. It’s also a block away from where Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, live.
Critchlow, a former St. Joseph County Democratic Party chair and South Bend mayoral candidate, considers the visits from strangers a “minor annoyance,” though his wife finds it all a bit unsettling.
“They’ve always seemed very nice,” he said. “They’re just kind of gushing and saying that they just want to talk to him.”
Buttigieg’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination has introduced not only his neighborhood, but all of South Bend, to millions of people as something more than just the home of Notre Dame football.
What might it all mean for South Bend, now that so many people are hearing about the city for the first time? Some believe it could have an impact on the local economy, benefiting existing businesses but also attracting developers and investors. South Bend has received rare national attention from dozens of media outlets, after all.
But not all the attention has been positive.
Buttigieg critics have also stepped into the spotlight, painting the picture of a mayor who did not do enough for impoverished neighborhoods and struggled to address tension between police and African-American residents. Contrasting with glowing images of the city, protests and photos of abandoned buildings also have made their way into national media reports.
Is South Bend back?
For his part, Buttigieg, who leaves office Jan. 1, thinks the positive attention outweighs the rest, and will pay off for South Bend.
“If nothing else, it means we’re on the radar in new and positive ways,” he recently said in a telephone interview from Iowa. “Half the battle is making sure people know we’re there, and we’ve certainly made some gains in that sense.”
How Buttigieg’s campaign could attract investors
Regardless of whether Buttigieg makes it to the White House, his campaign could ultimately mean good things for South Bend’s economy, said David Terrell, executive director of the Indiana Communities Institute at Ball State University.
In particular, Buttigieg has effectively portrayed the city as one that’s taken advantage of innovation and technology, Terrell said. Along with partnerships with Notre Dame, Buttigieg has painted those efforts as rejuvenating the city’s image and trajectory, which had never fully recovered from the closure of hometown automaker Studebaker in the 1960s.
“I really appreciate his assertion that we can’t keep waiting for the big Studebaker plant to come back, that we need to try different approaches to the economy,” Terrell said. “That will cause people interested in the city, or folks in economic development, to see what South Bend is doing and what he’s talking about.”
He credits the mayor with touting a “kind of an entrepreneurial ecosystem” by pointing to efforts to revitalize older buildings and lure start-ups.
“That is what is attractive to potential developers and investors,” Terrell said.
Max Brickman, who in 2016 founded South Bend-based Heartland Ventures, a venture capital firm, said the city’s higher profile from Buttigieg’s campaign has “definitely” changed things. He tries to lure venture capital from coastal cities, such as San Francisco, to Midwest markets.
“Typically when you say you’re from South Bend, people either don’t know where it is or they say, ‘Oh, Notre Dame,’ ” Brickman said. “Now it’s kind of split between, ‘Oh, Notre Dame,’ and ‘Mayor Pete.'”
That shifts their thinking to South Bend as “a more progressive, young, innovative city. I think that’s very much the image we want to build and I think Pete just helps support that, being on an international stage,” he said.
Mark Neal, a co-owner of the renovated Hibberd Building downtown and a former city controller who filled in as interim mayor during Buttigieg’s overseas deployment, thinks the impact will last well beyond Buttigieg’s campaign.
“We now have so many more stories being told by more people who are not from here but they have found something that they really like about being here,” he said.
Adelaine Muth is one such person. The 24-year-old artist, originally from upstate New York and now working as an artist’s assistant in Brooklyn, spent the summer of 2018 in South Bend as part of the Birdsell Project, an artist residency program.
Muth said she hadn’t heard of South Bend until she Googled it in early 2018. As she was considering whether to apply for the program, she read a story about Buttigieg’s work as mayor.
“It made it seem more interesting to be in Indiana,” she recalled.
Muth isn’t sure if she’ll vote for Buttigieg, but she has told many friends in New York about her positive experience in South Bend.
“I do recommend to people who are traveling through the Midwest to stop in South Bend,” she said.
Too soon to evaluate any effects
Still, measuring any economic progress from the increased national exposure will be hard to pinpoint, and it could be years before any hard numbers are evident.
Jeff Rea, president and CEO of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that it’s too soon to know whether it will lead to new jobs or long-term economic activity.
But he and his staff have encountered more people around the country who want to know about Buttigieg, amounting to a conversation “ice breaker.” Buttigieg’s campaign has generated national publicity that the pro-business group could never afford to buy. In fact, Rea recently apologized for being late for a South Bend Tribune interview because a separate one with a Los Angeles Times reporter ran long.
“I spend about half of my life answering Pete questions, which is fine,” Rea said.
He sees it as a chance to offer context and background on what’s happening in South Bend and the surrounding region — and to brag a bit.
But Jorden Giger, a Black Lives Matter South Bend activist, says he’s glad the national media coverage of Buttigieg has included a focus on tensions in the city’s black community, including the ongoing police tapes controversy, the city’s black poverty rate and calls for police reform. Some of the coverage featured heated reactions at public events, with Buttigieg facing shouts.
“That’s what happens when you run at that level,” Giger said. “He doesn’t have a record to really evaluate at the state or national level, so what he has is here.”
The heightened media scrutiny partly drove the administration and Common Council to pass a 2020 city budget that, in terms of funding for programs to help poor residents, is likely the most “progressive” in Giger’s lifetime, he said.
“These are challenges facing communities everywhere, it just so happens that it’s worse here,” Giger said. “I’m not thinking about it like, will people want to visit or move to South Bend? I’m thinking of the people who are here. How do we improve their lives?”
Capitalizing on campaign buzz
If there’s an immediate impact to Buttigieg’s run for the White House, it can be seen downtown. Buttigieg’s campaign headquarters occupy two floors of the Key Bank Building, employing 135 people, while staff from field offices in other states sometimes come to town for “retreats.”
Those are visitors flying into the local airport, staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants.
Also, campaign employees are leasing apartments in new or renovated downtown buidlings, such as the Hibberd Building, the Ivy at Berlin Place, The LaSalle and Studebaker Lofts in the JMS Building.
Jeff Morowski hopes Buttigieg lasts long in the race, not necessarily because he shares his politics but because he co-owns Chicory Café, located across the street from the campaign headquarters.
“They’re constantly coming in and getting coffee and quick lunch,” Morowski said. “Our quick-service food is perfect for them being as busy as they are. We definitely see an impact.”
And like Critchlow, Morowski often crosses paths with out-of-towners who are curious about the mayor and his hometown.
Buttigieg supporters Meg and Duncan Morgan came to South Bend last week from Carrboro, North Carolina, with their 5-year-old son Max — not on the way to somewhere else, but as a destination.
Meg Morgan, who has relatives in Michigan and Indiana, said she heard of South Bend before discovering Buttigieg’s campaign but never thought much of it.
The family went to Des Moines, Iowa, in October to see Buttigieg and other Demcoratic presidential candidates speak at the Liberty and Justice Celebration. When the holidays came, they were looking for another road trip.
“We thought, ‘Well, he’s got two weeks left in office. Let’s go see South Bend,’ ” she said.
They stayed downtown at Aloft, a hotel in the city’s tallest building, the 25-story Liberty Tower, that was renovated by private investors two years ago. They particularly enjoyed the newly renovated Howard Park and its ice rink.
“Even coming from this really great little town, we’re a little jealous of what you guys have up here,” Morgan said. “South Bend has now become a regular talking point in our household since finding out about Mayor Pete.”
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