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Finding a shared future

Madeline Buckley | Monday, February 14, 2011

South Bend Mayor Stephen Luecke clearly recalls meeting with University President Emeritus Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy on campus about 15 years ago when he first stepped into the role of mayor of South Bend.

It was the first of many meetings between Luecke and University officials that would define a decade and a half of collaborations on projects such as Innovation Park and Eddy Street Commons. It was the new mayor’s first access to a relationship with Notre Dame that would be sometimes challenging and often rewarding.

“There were some bumps in the road from time to time,” Luecke said, specifically noting debate about whether to pass an ordinance to ban off-campus student parties in 2007. “But that provided some other opportunities for discussion that led to positive relations and finding ways to work through issues and understand different points of view.”

Luecke, who has been mayor of South Bend since 1997, announced in December that he would not run for reelection next year. He is the longest-serving mayor in South Bend’s history.

The mayor has led South Bend through inaugurations of two University presidents, two presidential visits to Notre Dame — Barack Obama in 2009 and George W. Bush in 2001 — and numerous debates over the years about the town-gown relationship.

Luecke’s 14th-floor office in the County-City Building offers a sweeping view of the city, with the tower of Le Mans Hall at Saint Mary’s just visible to the north. He doesn’t interact with University officials on a daily basis, but collaboration is frequent, Luecke said in an interview in his downtown South Bend office.

“Over the years, the relationship has strengthened and developed,” he said.

With a change of city leadership coming, the University will be closely watching coming elections, said Tim Sexton, Notre Dame’s assistant vice president for Public Affairs.

“The primary election, scheduled for May 3, will be very interesting,” said Sexton, who acts as the University’s point person for communication with the city.

Several joint ventures, such as work with the Robinson Community Learning Center, Innovation Park and the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization, give the University reason to quickly begin a relationship with the incoming mayor, Sexton said.

“There will be a learning curve, regardless of who is elected mayor, there are simply too many exciting projects and initiatives occurring for a person to wrap their hands around everything,” he said.

Luecke said research facilities Innovation Park and Ignition Park stand out as one of the most prominent projects he has tackled as mayor.

The University and the city first started collaborating in 2004 on the research parks to bring business to the local economy. Innovation Park is funded by multiple sources, including federal, state and local governments, the University and private donors.

The Park, which opened in the fall of 2009, offers office and lab space for research ventures and start-up companies. Sexton said it is currently about 60 to 65 percent occupied with 30 tenants.

Companies that develop successfully in Innovation Park can move to Ignition Park, the city’s partner research facility. Luecke recently announced that a company based in Innovation Park will graduate to Ignition Park.

“We know that we won’t capture every company that succeeds and grows from Innovation Park, but if we get a few, that’s great,” Luecke said. “It is certainly our goal to capture as many companies as possible.”

Luecke also notably worked with the University on building Eddy Street Commons — a project that initially sparked fears in some about Notre Dame expansion into the Northeast Neighborhood.

“There were certainly some tensions at times, and worries by some neighbors that the University is expanding and going to eat up neighborhood,” Luecke said.

After conversations among city officials, the University and neighborhood residents about the scope of the Commons, the city and University moved forward on developing the center of restaurants, retail and apartment complexes, which opened in 2009.

The University also partnered with the city, the South Bend Clinic, Memorial Hospital of South Bend and Saint Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO) to further develop the Northeast Neighborhood, just south of Notre Dame’s campus.

The NNRO works to rehabilitate homes in the neighborhood. Many house Notre Dame faculty, and about 30 percent are subsidized for moderate-income families, Luecke said.

“I think that worked well in terms of satisfying some concerns resident had,” Luecke said.

After 15 years, Luecke said he is ready to step down from his role.

“I couldn’t really commit the energy to it for another four years,” Luecke said. “As much as I love the job, it’s a draining job.”

He hasn’t yet decided what to do after he finishes his last term as mayor of South Bend, but without a campaign to split his focus, he hopes to spend the rest of his time finishing several initiatives and preparing the office for new leadership.

“It’s exciting, but a little anxiety producing,” Luecke said.

Governing a city that houses a major university was educational, he said.

“There are challenges associated with having strong university presence,” he said, “like the town gown relationships, developing partnerships, finding common ground as university and a community.

“But I think we did a great job of finding a shared future vision.”