Indianapolis paying $80K to DC lobbyists to hunt for federal grants

The Navistar plant
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The City of Indianapolis is paying DC lobbyists $80,000 a year to help find federal tax money for local projects. Four city neighborhoods abandoned by auto manufacturers are hoping the investment pays off.

Outside Mary Wilson's front door is an eyesore.

"I mean, look at it. It's nothing pretty to look at sitting on your porch. You hear that loud bang," said Wilson, who lives near the old Navistar plant on the Indianapolis southeast side.

It isn't just the noise. Wilson says residue from the plant, now home in part to Pure Power Technologies, ruined the paint on her vehicles. Fortunately the company took care of it. But what she really wants is the city to find a new use for this old facility.

With local budgets stretched, 13 Investigates looked into city efforts to get federal funds. We found the city spending money to get money, paying $20,000 every three months to lobbyists in Washington, DC.

"Tracking federal legislation or rule-making and how that may impact the city. They also help city agencies obtain federal grants and manage those federal grants. The city has about a $130 million federal grant portfolio," said Marc Lotter, spokesman for Mayor Greg Ballard.

Lotter says that $130 million is already in the city's hands or pipeline waiting to be executed. While he can't pinpoint an exact figure, he believes a $157,000 grant awarded last October is an example of the impact of lobbying.

"It's being used to study four former automobile plants and really try to help us strategically target a new use for them," said Lotter.

The four sites include the GM Stamping Plant just west of downtown and what remains of the old Chrysler plant blocks away; on the east side, the Navistar foundry across from Mary Wilson's house, and the Ford/Visteon assembly plant near Irvington.

As hundreds of acres sit vacant at the old Visteon site, the city is working to bring more life to this area. Just across a walking path is one of the city-sponsored charter schools.

"My son starts here next year," said Breanne Bell, who is excited that her incoming kindergartner can attend Irvington Community Elementary. She wasn't so sure what would happen when Ford/Visteon left town.

"Did you think anybody else would be moving in?" Eyewitness News asked her.

"That I didn't. I thought maybe it would all go downhill and it would just be vacant," said Bell.

What happens next is unclear.

As contractors work to assess the sites, there's no sign the city will stop its $20,000 quarterly payments to DC lobbyists to try to navigate new ground.

The city is working with the owners of the properties to come up with plans for reuse. Study results are expected in May of next year. Lotter says federal tax dollars are also being used for street repairs, flooding, law enforcement and transportation.