Media

Will lack of public transit snarl plans for 1,000 workers needed for Ikea, more in Fishers?

Aug. 7, 2017 | IndyStar | Link to Article
By John Tuohy

When three popular businesses open along I-69 in Fishers this fall, they will hire nearly a thousand employees to sell furniture, hot dogs and drinks.

The retail hub is expected to provide an economic jolt and cachet to the upscale suburb that should enhance its reputation as one of the most desirable places in the state to live. The city landed the much coveted global furniture retailer Ikea, which is hiring 250 workers; the popular Chicago hot dog restaurant Portillo's, that will employ 200 people; and the fast-growing entertainment and golf venture, Topgolf, that will need to fill 500 positions.

Hundreds more workers will be needed in a couple of years when up to 18 new restaurants open at a culinary district called “The Yard."

Some officials, however, are worried about how those workers will get to their new, service industry jobs. Many employees will likely live in Indianapolis, Anderson and Hancock County because Hamilton's County's unemployment rate is so low. And there is a good chance many of them won't own cars. But there is no public transportation to the 116th Street exit of I-69. In fact, neither Fishers, its neighboring suburbs nor Hamilton County has any public transportation.

 “Obviously, transportation is an impediment for jobs at low to moderate pay,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Christine Altman. “I want to have a discussion about some type of public-private partnership to address the issue.”

The transportation quandary presents an irony of sorts for Mayor Scott Fadness, who has dismissed plans for high-speed bus service to Fishers. Fadness has said that in the future people working from home, ride-share services such as Uber and self-driving cars will decrease the demand for public transportation.

"I still believe that," Fadness said Friday.

Just a couple of years ago, transportation planners were pushing a 22-mile bus rapid transit line — the Green Line — from Downtown Indianapolis to Noblesville along the Nickel Plate rail line. The buses would stop near downtown Fishers about a half mile from Ikea and the other soon-to-open businesses.

But that plan was put on hold because of indifference by residents in the northern suburbs and because it was more expensive than anticipated. Meanwhile, Fadness and Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear have plans to convert the Nickel Plate to a greenway, though the cities want to leave open the option to switch the corridor to mass transit use in the future.

Fadness said he agrees that getting people without cars to jobs could be a challenge but doesn't think regular bus service is the answer. The Green Line would be at least a decade away if it were still on course and a fixed bus route might take three to five years to get rolling.

"The technology, or the medium, is changing so quickly, I don't think old-fashioned bus routes are the way to do it," Fadness said. "In five years, there will be modes of getting around that we haven't even considered today."

Altman, a board member of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority, said she is exploring transit plans that have worked in the warehouse districts in Hendricks and Boone Counties, such as shuttles, "circulators" and car pools.

Wal-Mart in Plainfield and Amazon in Whitestown help pay for “end-of-the-line” bus connections for their workers to their huge distribution centers. The Whitestown shuttle collects commuters at IndyGo bus stops at Traders Point on the northwest side. The shuttle jumps onto I-65 and drops workers off at the Anson Development, home to  Amazon, Express Script, GNC and Weaver Popcorn.

The closest any public transportation comes to 116th Street is the No. 19 Castleton IndyGo bus that reaches Shadeland Avenue and 82nd Street, about five miles away.

Fadness said if companies determine shuttles are needed, the city would assist in planning.

Proponents of mass transit said the potential problems faced by the Fishers businesses has grown more pronounced in the past few years as jobs for unskilled workers open in the suburbs but most of the available workforce remains in Indianapolis.

"It is quite a dilemma," said the Rev. Juard Barnes, a community organizer for the Indianapolis Action Congregation Network (IndyCAN), a non-profit organization that promotes economic equality for the underprivileged. "A lot of jobs are opening farther and farther out, which makes them even more unreachable."

At some point, Barnes said, without a convenient way to get to a far-away, near-minimum-wage job, an applicant must make a certain calculus: Is it even worth it?

"It's a Catch-22," Barnes said.

IndyCAN, along with a host of large Indianapolis corporations, helped get a Marion County voter referendum passed in support of the Red Line bus rapid transit system in Indianapolis.

Their argument was that better bus service benefits employers by increasing the potential candidate field and reducing worker turnover.

Tim Monger, president of the Hamilton County Economic Development Corp., said it appears the companies, for the time being, are satisfied that they can fill their ranks with people who have cars. The location along I-69 appealed to the companies precisely because it’s convenient for drivers.

“Recruiting people is a general challenge,” Monger said. “But we will see. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.”

Altman said CIRTA and the county commissioners might recommend a plan in which the companies make the area an economic development zone. Under the proposal, a percentage of the companies' property taxes would pay for shuttle buses, with assistance from state and federal grants.

Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth said the company doesn’t use shuttles at any of its 44 U.S. stores and has no expectation that they would be needed in Indianapolis. Many of its employees in Asia and Europe do get to work on buses and trains, he said.

“We also recognize that in the United States, where geography and growth can be expansive, public transit may not be as developed,” Roth said. “For this reason, we believe our location in Fishers, along I-69, not far from I-465, maximizes the connectivity of local highways frequented by future coworkers and customers.”

Ikea may have an advantage over Portillo’s and Topgolf because many of its jobs are higher paying and provide health benefits. Roth would not provide a salary range, but the job and recruiting website Glassdoor reported that a food service manager can make $76,000 a year, an interior designer $53,000 and a warehouse worker $33,000. But there are plenty of low-paying jobs, too; Ikea cashiers make about $11 an hour, according to Glassdoor.

At Portillo’s, a line cook makes $9.48 an hour, and at Topgolf, tip-dependent bartenders make $5.28 an hour and workers in golf services earn $9.20 per hour, Glassdoor found.

Topgolf spokeswoman Morgan Wallace said some employees at its businesses organize carpools, but she did not have specific information about how many.

Ikea recently held two job fairs in one day — in Indianapolis and Noblesville. Roth said the number of applicants at each site was equal but he declined to say how many there were.

Topgolf has several job fairs scheduled for bartenders, hostesses, bussers and bar-backs at a banquet and conference center The Wellington, 9775 N by NE Blvd, Fishers.

A representative of Portillo’s was unavailable for comment on whether it has shuttle services.

"A lot of things are happening and opening up around the entire region," said IndyCAN's Barnes. "This is further evidence that Indianapolis cannot thrive with the 88th-ranked public transportation system in the country."