It's been years since I last talked with Rhonda Boutte, one of the state's leading economic development professionals. She hasn't changed a bit as far as I could tell.
She wasted no time with pleasantries. "Everybody's trying to be somebody else. There’s a whole lot of chubby brunettes pretending to be slinky blondes. Unless you're willing to undergo a real transformation, those dark roots will show through and the stress will sour you on getting anything done."
"I don't understand," I admitted.
"Bezos be damned," she said. "Here's a guy telling cities what they need to be if they are going to get the Amazon prize. He's looking for another Seattle. He’s the typical narcissistic tycoon expecting to work wonders on whatever he touches."
"Seattle's a nice place," I said.
"Yes," she replied, "but it is not Denver or Pittsburgh or Indianapolis. Seattle grew to what it is today from what it was forty years ago. It has not achieved any awards for urban perfection and might not qualify as a desirable place by Amazon's fanciful expectations."
"But striving to be successful by imitation of other places is not new," I suggested.
"Quite right," Rhonda agreed. "But development is best when it's organic, emphasizing existing strengths. One can prune a plant to encourage a desired form, but grafting for variety is a not necessarily successful. Lafayette has developed because of existing strengths at Purdue. Indianapolis has built upon the foundation laid by Lilly and the IU medical school."
"Isn't that idea often used as an argument against needed change, against modernization and diversification?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered. "But let's get real. Indiana is a conservative state. That's not a political statement alone, it is a philosophical disposition. We celebrate inventing the rear view mirror. Our long history is the story of staying put. Yesterday was good enough. Those with a desire to depart from their current status in life usually go elsewhere where striving is not a sin."
"That's harsh," I objected.
"Come now," Rhonda laughed. "You've said similar things for years. But it's harsh when I say it? Indiana always wants to wait until it sees how the rest of the country is moving. We're happy to trot along near the back of the pack rather than to be a front runner. Our efforts are devoted to being ‘business friendly’ instead of trying to help people. Many Hoosiers actually believe in policies that were rejected in the late 19th century."
Then I asked her the question I get so frequently, 'If Indiana is so bad, so backward, why do you stay here?"
Rhonda thought for a moment and then said, "It's more fun to swim against the tide, to walk into the wind, to exert oneself, than to be carried along by popular forces."
"What you mean," I said, "is no one has offered you a job elsewhere."