Bringing People, Neighborhoods, and Businesses Together: A Look Inside Midtown Indy with Michael McKillip

As a 501c3 organization, Midtown Indy exists to cultivate an equitable, healthy, and sustainable community in which stakeholders of all races, incomes, and ethnicities have access to the resources that they need to thrive. Its efforts are made possible through philanthropic support of area businesses, institutions, charitable foundations, and individual stakeholders.

Some of Midtown Indy’s initiatives include revitalizing blighted commercial areas, redeveloping vacant or underused commercial and residential properties, community programming to improve the quality of life, long range planning for development and economic stability, and planned events to celebrate and to showcase the programs that make Midtown Neighborhoods true community assets.

With his unique approach to community leadership, Executive Director Michael McKillip shares how Midtown Indy’s work is helping to shape a vibrant community.

You have a degree in political science from IU, and you started off working with the legislative body, government affairs then real estate and renovations. That’s an interesting path, but let’s go back even further to community involvement. As a kid how were you even interested in this? Who encouraged you?

As a child I never imagined doing this work. I had no understanding of it. I think what I did understand is my mother and two of my other parents were nurses. And all the men on my mother’s side of the family were in the military. And so, there was a strong commitment to serve and help others. And I I was a wayward student. I was sort of forced awake. And that awakening came through political theory, philosophy, and constitutional law. And my passion became advocating for others from a policy perspective.

So, you graduate with a degree in political science, you’re going to help others through policy. How does that lead to real estate and now to community development?

It was a very windy path. I spent, I think, seven years at the Statehouse beating my head against the marble and granite walls. Went into construction, but it all really started when I bought a home in Midtown at 33rd and College. It had been a long-abandoned home. I met some of the neighbors, they had a need for someone to get involved in the Neighborhood Association, and I very quickly realized that the challenges facing the neighborhood were more than the Neighborhood Association could solve.

I got pulled into the Maple Road Development Association. Very quickly, I became its president and sort of said, you know what this corridor needs and what the communities need is really to come together, because we’re dealing with social and racial disparities. We’re dealing with socioeconomic disparities, life expectancy disparities. And we can’t solve that as one neighborhood, and we can’t solve that as one corridor. And so, getting involved in Midtown was really an opportunity to bring all the stakeholders together to begin to solve that. And I didn’t think of myself as a community builder. I still thought of myself as a sort of contractor lobbyist person who understood how to build things such as a foundation, walls, utility infrastructure, a roof, that sort of thing. And I just began to treat community development in the same way.

So, you were pivoting a little bit from knowing how to build physical things to building relationships. And that is one of the interesting things about Midtown is how diverse the stakeholder group is. So as a newbie to the neighborhood, how did you start doing that? How did you start building relationships with such a disparate group of stakeholders?

I think it started with the house. I was a Caucasian person moving into a predominantly black neighborhood. And there was a lot of anxiety over what I was doing at the house. And was I a flipper. Was I just I an outsider who was just going to turn this house over? Or was I there? And so, I think the relationships that I made with neighbors came about when they understood this was my home and I was bringing my family here. I cared about them. I cared about their story. It became a very fluid and easy sort of path, one step after the other of expanding those relationships from my own neighborhood to the adjacent neighborhoods, to the institutions, to the businesses.

So how did you translate that to your move to your new position when you left the presidency to the CEO? What did that look like?

I was made part of the search committee for an executive director for a startup organization. There were two organizations partnering. There was Maple Road Development Association, which I was the volunteer president of, and there was Harmony, which was a startup group of former neighborhood presidents and residents who sort of thought there was a need for a larger organization. Maple Road ceased to exist, but we invested in the proposition of a place called Midtown. We wondered if there was a need for an organization to do this work. And if that were, what does that work look like? And so, serving on that board and that search committee, I think I might have got hired because I was the only one crazy enough to work for an organization with no money no real clear plan. And I was not afraid of challenges that are undefined. I like the hard things. I lobbied for hard things in Indiana. And I’m not afraid to sort of tackle those issues that don’t really have answers where you must sort of discover as you go.

That was in 2012. And what were the initial big ideas strategy-wise for the neighborhood?

I think the goal of the organization was to, to define the place that we know as Midtown today. Years ago, people didn’t call it Midtown. What was its history? What were its roots? Could it become a place of employment? A place of identity? A place of connectivity? A place of investment? Because that was when we were experiencing a second massive exodus of residents. The first occurred in the 1950s, where our six southern neighborhoods lost 75 percent of their population post school desegregation. Then it happened again after the Supreme Court struck down Indiana’s property tax structure. And as residents in our more affluent neighborhoods began to make the value proposition that it was cheaper and easier, more financially advantageous to move somewhere else. At that time, we were losing residents and experiencing a 21% population decline between 2000 and 2010. So, the early goals were what can we do to make it a value proposition to stay here? And that was investing in infrastructure, in public spaces, in transportation in coordinating better with the city on how infrastructure is invested, safe routes to schools. It was helping people understand school choices because at the time, education was a big driver of why people would choose to leave. If they didn’t get into an IPS lottery school or couldn’t afford a private school, it was let’s move to the suburbs. And so really, the early phase goals were to slow the exodus of people from our community and to ensure that we could be sustainable for another hundred years. 

What initiatives have been effective to slow the bleed and then get Midtown to be a neighborhood of choice?

I think part of it was making people aware of their education choices. We hosted the Midtown Education Summit for several years to help people navigate the process. I think IPS has gotten much better, and rural Indy has gotten better. But it was really investing in the people and in the places that were already there. I think Tarkington Park was one of those strategies of creating a community living room. It’s now a $6M, amazing destination park in our community. And I think the organizing and the community working together when bids came in high, and the budget fell short. People, residents, knocked on doors and helped us close a million-dollar gap in about 12 weeks to keep that on track. I think the other strategy was the partnership with IndyGo to invest in transportation, not just bus rapid transit, but the IndyGo forward proposition of increasing bus frequency, realigning routes to higher density and more reliability. Those investments, along with the Midtown Economic Council and the Tax Increment Finance District, which was conceptual way back in 2012, but today has now leveraged almost a half a billion dollars in mixed use redevelopment of vacant, obsolescent, and underutilized property. So, when things start happening, people start paying attention and people want to know why things are happening and they tend to want to be, want to be part of it.

Looking back ten years ago to now, where do you wish that more progress had been made in the neighborhood?

It was probably that recognition I had in around 2015 or 2016 when the park was finishing, and protesters showed up to protest the park. I found myself sideways with the community that I thought we had worked closely with, and it was really a realization that we didn’t understand our privilege. We didn’t hold a traditional community meeting in a church in an evening where can families really connect. People don’t often get proactive in their neighborhood. They tend to react to things happening. I think a part of the positivity of it all was that the park happened and there were folks who were frustrated. But it has led to deeper and deeper relationships. However, we don’t want to make those mistakes again and have learn from them. We want to avoid them from the beginning. But certainly, I think it was a powerful moment that, that led people to want to be more involved and to want to be empowered. To shape their own community.

You have quite a few very important organizations to the neighborhood, but also to the state, he city, that are part of your partners. What’s that look like as you coalesce with these anchor institutions and bring them together with the neighbors in the community?

It’s the, the uniqueness of the Midtown community having not only having half a dozen Anchor institutions,  but also the Children’s Museum, the International School, Newfields, Crown Hill Cemetery the State Fairgrounds—all those organizations own 24 percent of the land that is in the geography we call Midtown. So, they were obviously very important, but I think so too is the richness of the nonprofit community we have that not just that serves our community, but serves the whole state such as Girls Inc., the villages. Indiana Youth Group, Coburn Place, the Martin Luther King Community Center. We have a robust community that cares for itself. I think the anchor institutional conversations 10 or 12 years ago were institutions with walls or inside of bubbles. And the opportunity of thinking of this as a consolidated place really. This inspired the leaders of all of those institutions to begin to collaborate and to listen, in part because their own campuses were growing and, and they didn’t have stronger relationships with the immediately surrounding neighborhoods and the coalition formed in around 2015 and led some pretty spectacular initiatives, such as down payment and home repair assistance programs with Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Project, in the chamber where institutions incentivized their employees to buy homes in the neighborhood and the employees who live there to repair their homes. They have been invaluable in reconciling with the engineers that 38th Street is not a highway. It is a road that serves about a dozen neighborhoods and should be treated like a road and not an interstate. Those partnerships have been tremendous, and they continue to grow and to change. We’ve seen a lot of changes in Newfields recently in terms of their community engagement. We’ve seen institutions like the Children’s Museum open their doors to surrounding neighborhoods with free memberships to the Mid North Promise scholarship program. What’s happened over the last decade is magical to see how institutions who serve our state, or our region have begun to recognize and embrace the, the communities that they’re located in.

You have a small but mighty staff. Talk a little bit about working with your  staff and how you keep everybody motivated, mission driven.

We are as an organization, first and foremost, a convener. While we don’t have staff, we have many partners, those nonprofits we talked about, those anchor institutions, the 20 distinguished, distinct historic neighborhood organizations. Our job has been to convene and to listen and most of the work is done by others. It’s really helping people understand the value proposition of collaborating. There was a time when every bridge in and out of Midtown was crumbling and 12 years later, every one of those bridges has been rebuilt in part because neighbors came together to prioritize the city’s infrastructure to help the city understand the prioritization of infrastructure. As a staff we are always overwhelmed, we are always underserving because there are  at last count 60, 000 people who call Midtown home, 3M visitors through institutions and so two people couldn’t possibly do all the work and so we’re able to be effective because we focus and prioritize on very specific things. We spent years getting the community to embrace transit. We had, in the transit referendum, 70 percent, the highest Marion County. The Midtown community came out in favor of that. And so, and that’s in part because our small staff uses our time wisely to focus on things that will really impact positively the greatest number of people.

When you look at the next 10 years, what are the big initiatives that you hope you and your staff and partners have accomplished for Midtown?

I hope we can pivot from just the convening role to more of an implementation and doing role. We’ve started that process with the Parkside Senior Housing Project where we turned the old United Way headquarters into 60 units of affordable housing. Recognizing that historically,  that part of the Midtown community does not have a positive history on diversity. It kind of exists in pockets. And I think the goal in the future is to see diversity more thoroughly blended throughout our communities, increasing affordability in our less affordable neighborhoods. It’s seeing more XBE business owners seeing higher utilization. So really, focusing on workforce development. And then helping to complete the vision around transit. Transit was one thing, but transit-oriented development is another. Midtown was cursed with unnecessary, copious amounts of surface parking lots over the years. And as we densify, now it’s really time to embrace the utilization of transit and to see that densification to occur on some of those vacant and blighted corners on College Avenue and, and on 38th Street. We are also blessed to be surrounded by greenways, 360 degrees around midtown with the White River trail and the Monon Trail and the fall Creek Trail, and soon the Nickel Plate. Part of it is to be mindful that these are positive investments that can have negative consequences. If we could go back 10 or 12 years, it is to really understand the implications of the actions in spurring development, encouraging development, incentivizing development can cause displacement. We’re very sensitive to that. And now we’re really focused on ensuring that the stakeholders who are adjacent to and will be impacted by investments like the Nickel Plate construction and larger projects that are occurring throughout the, the BRT trajectory in Midtown to ensuring that folks are engaged in part of it and that those projects inherently employ more minority XBE vendors and contractors that business owners have those opportunities. And that for all the market rate housing we’re building that we’re being mindful of affordability and co-integrating that into every project that occurs in our community.

Let’s pivot a little bit to mentorship. Who do you look to? Do you have a story of someone who has helped you continue growing as a leader, to see things more broadly, be better at coalition? And then how do you take those lessons and start talking to the next Michael who’s graduating from IU this spring?

I think a lot of people have had a hand in helping me shape the person and the kind of leader that I am. And I think that every aspect of what we do is done, done in partnership with someone that I’ve learned something from. Imhotep Adisa at the Kheprw Institute and understanding the community wealth building model has probably been the most impactful on the way I work and the way that I lead.

And I don’t know if he would know that I consider him a mentor, but I do. Everything they’re doing has really enlightened my perspective on the work that we’re doing in a way that I don’t think anything else that I could have experienced would have.

It’s my obligation to ensure that others understand the lessons that I’ve learned. And that, that I spend all my leadership understanding do you lead from the front, or do you lead from the back? Or do you lead from the middle? And being willing to take all those positions as well as ensuring that the next generation that I’m building has the capacity of others not just growing my own organizational capacity but building the capacity of KHEPRW and the MLK Center and Coburn Place and all the other stakeholders in our community. That’s really our job—to help ensure that they’re successful.

What do you think about when you think about your own wellness as a leader. How do you take care of yourself so that you can help others?

I have a menagerie of hobbies that keep me healthy and running. I’m currently doing a 3,000-push-up challenge in the month of November. So, when we leave here, I’ll do 50 of those. And then I’ve embraced all things food. I’ve launched on a culinary journey of cooking international foods that are not familiar to me, such as charcuterie and curing meat. Those are the things that keep me healthy, and then the things that keep me rich in my work is sitting in Tarkington Park on movie night in October and sitting with kids painting pumpkins and seeing the things that we’ve helped to make possible. Seeing them work, seeing people utilizing them, the last two years, the Juneteenth celebration at Tarkington Park, and so seeing the things that we have done positively impact the lives of others are the reasons I do this work.

What are you reading right now or what have you read recently that you would recommend as required?

The book that stands out to me is Tangled Up in Blue Policing the American City by Rosa Brooks. Understanding the impact of law enforcement in the communities that I serve and understanding law enforcement in general is important. Rosa Brooks is a law professor in Washington D.C. and became a police officer. Understanding what navigating, both from the community perspective and from being inside of a police department, what it means is fascinating. I think we could all, given the times that we live in, benefit from understanding how the job that police officers have, the needs of the communities they’re serving, and the dynamics that are occurring in between those things.

If you had one story that you wish they knew about Midtown, what would you share?

It would probably be to go back to that protest in the park that was really a pivotal moment for me standing with 300 angry residents who were reacting to a team being displaced from the park during construction. While it wasn’t our fault we weren’t in the city and we didn’t have the fence put up, understanding our culpability in that, and not running, but instead embracing those who most hated us at that moment. And the journey that we’ve taken together to become very close friends with those stakeholders and very close partners .That’s really who we are as an organization. We own our mistakes. We don’t have all the answers, but that at the end of the day, we will own the things. Whether we did them or not, we’re responsible, and that is attributable to the reason people trust us—because we have integrity. We don’t have all the answers, but we certainly have the capacity to uplift other people in the ways that we have. And we’re here for them. And I think it’s a healthy part of community development. And it’s one that’s played an important role in our organization.

*Excerpts from this Q&A were taken from a podcast episode with McKillip in January.