People walking through park

A New Life for Sherman Park

For most of the past century, the 50-acre parcel on the northwest corner of Michigan Street and Sherman Drive on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis was a bustling economic hub. Having hosted General Electric (GE), the RCA Corporation (formerly the Radio Corporation of America), and Thomson Consumer Electronics in succession, the tract was a worksite for approximately 8,000 people, many of whom sustained long-term careers without postsecondary degrees, at its apex.

The failure of RCA’s corporate leadership to globalize and the Reagan Administration’s relaxation of federal antitrust regulations led GE to reacquire RCA in 1985[1] and promptly sell the latter company’s assets, leaving many blue-collar workers on Indianapolis’ Near Eastside in limbo. Fortunately for some workers, Thomson Consumer Electronics acquired the site, reinstating blue-collar jobs, but like many American manufacturing companies, the company was forced to close its Rust Belt[2] locations when job automation through technological advancements domestically and cheaper costs of land, labor, and capital abroad caused it to lose its competitive edge in the United States during the 1990s.

The state of the Near Eastside’s largest industrial site and its surrounding neighborhoods became increasingly bleak over the next two decades. After a brief stint as a heavy machinery repair and storage site under the ownership of Johnson Machinery and Sherman Park, LLP, the site (which continues to be known as “Sherman Park”) was acquired by Harshman Property Services, and quickly gained notoriety as a crime-ridden eyesore, even being labeled as an epicenter for homicide in Indianapolis. While perhaps not entirely to blame, the abandonment and neglect of Sherman Park by employers undoubtedly contributed to the 29 percent increase in unemployment in the 46201 ZIP code between 2000 and 2015, along with the 21.5 percent drop in population that occurred over the same period.

Vacant buildings at Sherman Park in 2015 (Source: Jason Humbracht)

Neighbors Take Action against Blight

Eventually, members of the Near Eastside community had enough of the degeneration occurring at Sherman Park. In spite of the major challenges that the site’s disrepair and history of environmental contamination posed, Near East Area Renewal (NEAR), a community development corporation that specializes in building safe, affordable single-family housing, took the initiative to organize a revitalization task force. Following the IndyEast Promise Zone designation, the City of Indianapolis forged a partnership with and supported NEAR as the developer applied for its first direct federal award, the Brownfields Area-wide Planning Grant through the United States Environmental Protection Agency. With a bold vision and the boon of Promise Zone support, NEAR received the grant in 2017 and proceeded to solicit input from over 230 residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Sherman Park in order to inform its 2018 area-wide plan.

Through its community engagement efforts, NEAR found that job creation was the top priority of Near Eastside neighbors, followed by soil and water decontamination. Given that only about 53 percent of people living in the 46201 ZIP code who were at least 16 years old were employed and that five underground storage tanks had been leaching petroleum products, chlorinated solvents, and heavy metals under Sherman Park, both of those priorities were well-founded. In response to community preferences for industrial, commercial, and educational development, the Sherman Park Plan proposes to dedicate about 70 percent of usable land for the light industry with the remainder to be set aside for a park, retail space, and multifamily housing. Because large-scale production and logistics employers deal massive blows to local communities when they fail, as they have been prone to on the Near Eastside in recent decades, the Sherman Park Plan aims to attract and retain a diverse ensemble of small and mid-sized enterprises in order to cultivate a resilient to Near Eastside economy in which a blow to one industry group would be unlikely to adversely impact the jobs available to neighbors in others.

Return of RecycleForce

While employers at Sherman Park are mostly yet to be determined, RecycleForce is certain to be among them. RecycleForce, a nonprofit workforce re-entry organization that recycles electronic goods, began in 2003 at the former RCA building, where it remained until the building’s condemnation and demolition in 2012. After several years at the Circle City Industrial Complex, RecycleForce is working with the City of Indianapolis to reacquire a parcel at Sherman Park. Gregg Keesling, the founder, and CEO of RecycleForce, is excited to return and become a neighbor to Amerifab, a furnace equipment manufacturer that has long been the sole employer at Sherman Park.

“For RecycleForce, being able to own a permanent home will allow us to put down roots deep enough to make sure we are there for the community for many years to come,” says Keesling, who cites high resident turnover, changing resident demographics, and rising prices of building locations as factors that make finding a permanent location difficult for RecycleForce and other local enterprises.

RecycleForce employees disassembling consumer electronics to be recycled (Source: Indianapolis Business Journal)

Since its inception, RecycleForce has provided workforce training and job placement to nearly 1,200 people transitioning out of the criminal justice system and is well-positioned to continue doing so for years to come. Employees of RecycleForce earn a living wage and healthcare benefits, along with seventeen Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certificates that are required to pursue most careers in warehousing and logistics. Because it supports members of society who are traditionally neglected by employers but nonetheless have valuable economic contributions to make, RecycleForce serves as a paradigm for organizations looking to use employment as a means of reducing recidivism and overall crime rates on the Near Eastside.

Challenges Posed by Educational Gaps

While criminal records pose a significant barrier to employment for many people in Indianapolis, the widespread lack of academic and vocational credentials among neighbors of Sherman Park will be a far more daunting challenge to overcome in the process of ensuring that employers who locate in Sherman Park will be able to hire from surrounding neighborhoods. Extrapolations of state and federal data presented in a 2018 report from Ascend Indiana suggest that over half of new jobs statewide will require postsecondary credentials, yet only one out of every five adults who live within three miles of Sherman Park has a college degree. More alarmingly, a greater number of adults who live in that radius lack a high school diploma or equivalent degree, which presents an additional set of hurdles for them in the process of finding employment. In a world where costly postsecondary credentials are increasingly critical for access to middle-class jobs, many Near Eastsiders, particularly those for whom the financial obstacles to higher education are insurmountable, are prone to being left behind by new industries in the event that high-skill jobs concentrate in Indianapolis, as they tend to in major cities.

There is no doubt that increased support for efforts to improve rates of college readiness, high school graduation, college and vocational training program enrollment, and Indiana resident retention, particularly among low-income and minority students in K-12 programs citywide, will be a key component of any strategy for sustaining long-term regional economic growth. However, it will be equally important for policymakers and local stakeholders to recognize adults who may have been left behind in recent waves of structural unemployment[3] by expanding access to high school equivalency classes, job-readiness trainings, and apprenticeships, given the barriers that institutions of higher education pose for low-income individuals. Opportunities for college-educated workers are likely to be an important aspect of maintaining a diverse set of industries at Sherman Park while meeting the demands of 21st-century consumers, but apprenticeships and other opportunities for on-the-job training that allow for advancement without formal post-secondary schooling will also be critical since they are necessary to bridge the various skills gaps between neighbors without postsecondary credentials and their competitors citywide. Balancing the employment needs of less-educated Near Eastside neighbors with employer demands will be difficult, but RecycleForce has demonstrated its practicality with experience, creative thinking, risk-tolerance, community support, and persistence.

Challenges Posed by Environmental Contamination

In addition to a widespread lack of workforce readiness and a shortage of companies that hire people of diverse educational backgrounds, environmental contamination has also proven to be an obstacle to economic development in Sherman Park. By the end of its time as an active industrial site, Sherman Park was home to five known underground storage tanks ranging from 1,000 to 230,000 gallons that leached pollutants including, but not limited to, petroleum, chlorinated solvents, and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. Of nine environmental parcels surveyed by Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), seven were placed under environmentally-restrictive covenants, meaning that the future development would be unsafe without drastic remediation efforts.

In 2003, GE entered a legally-binding agreement with the IDEM to monitor groundwater and soil contamination, install an asphalt cap adjacent to its main building, and drill wells into which BCL bacterial cultures and emulsified vegetable oil (EVO) were injected to stymie the flow of contaminants while stimulating chemical reactions that reduced the potency of those contaminants. With their Brownfields Area-Wide Planning grant, NEAR and the City of Indianapolis went further, calling for additional subsurface investigations, excavation and removal of contaminated soil, and further capping with some combination of fresh soil and impervious pavement. There is still work being done to ensure that Sherman Park will be a safe place to live, work, and spend leisure time, but it will be well worth the wait considering the benefits that Sherman Park is expected to bring.

Future of Sherman Park

At the advice of neighbors, environmental decontamination and workforce preparation are the guiding objectives of the Sherman Park Plan. Soil and water remediation are expected to be completed, the ground is expected to be broken on new facilities, and new jobs will be available at Sherman Park over the next few years. Pursuant to job creation, NEAR and the City of Indianapolis is exploring the feasibility of opening an education and workforce development facility modeled after the Met Center in St. Louis, Missouri. If created, such a facility would provide job training and placement courses that would offer accelerated courses to low-income individuals who are committed to entering the workforce as HVAC technicians, electricians, plumbers, childcare providers, administrative assistants, nurses, and other professionals in growing fields. Early estimates posit that around 450 people will work at companies across Sherman Park, many of whom will likely have completed programs at the Met Center-inspired training facility. Neighbors of Sherman Park has been through their share of struggles due to unemployment, crime, diminishing property values, and other concerns, and the Sherman Park Plan offers a comprehensive, realistic framework around which area-wide recovery will occur.

[1] RCA was separated from GE by a government anti-trust lawsuit in 1932.

[2] The “Rust Belt” encompasses parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States that are characterized by declining industry, aging factories, and a falling population.

[3] Structural unemployment is a form of unemployment caused by a mismatch between the skills that workers in the economy can offer, and the skills demanded of workers by employers. Structural unemployment is often brought about by technological changes that make the job skills of many workers obsolete.