Ted Ellis is Transforming his Town
Stereotypes about rural vs urban communities have resurfaced as people try to make sense of the heated Presidential election. But the reality of small town America is more complex than an easy red state / blue state dichotomy. This month we highlight a mayor from the heart of Indiana who is breaking new ground in defining modern small town America. Meet Ted Ellis, Mayor of Bluffton, past National League of Cities President, and our DMO of the Month this September.
Bluffton, a town of 10,000, was named Indiana’s first “Gigabit City” thanks to Mayor Ellis. The town has introduced broadband speeds of over 100 times faster than average, accomplished through a public-private partnership with a local telecom company. Ellis categorized fast internet as an essential utility, and noted that new business developments need high-speed broadband to succeed. The move is also seen as preparation for a future where both businesses and residents rely more heavily on streaming internet services. Bluffton was also recently named the best city in Indiana to start a business. With the advent of incredible broadband speeds, that title may stay with the town for years to come.
The Bluffton Food Innovation Center is another concept moving forward with the help of Mayor Ellis. The center would serve as a 40,000 sq. ft. space dedicated to food education and entrepreneurship, allowing regional agriculture to be developed into local businesses. The incubator would also service restaurants in the growing farm-to-table movement. Community labs like the Food Innovation Center cut overhead for entrepreneurs while helping them experiment and take risks on new ideas. Mayor Ellis’ commitment to fostering agricultural startups takes local economic strengths to the next level.
Pawnee might have something to learn from Bluffton when it comes to parks and recreation. When Ted Ellis entered office, the parks department was primarily concerned with property and public pool maintenance. Today Bluffton boasts over 100 acres of green space, with miles of trails including one along the Wabash River. These changes helped the city’s Parks and Recreation Department get named the state’s best in 2014. Mayor Ellis has continued to push forward since then, renovating parks with grants from the Department of the Interior and expanding focus to address wastewater management.
Once known as a sundown town, Mayor Ellis is pushing to move Bluffton beyond its discriminatory past. Much of the mayor's work was inspired by the National League of Cities’ Partnership for Working toward Inclusive Communities. He initially ran into roadblocks trying to talk to his community about diversity. They took “diversity” to be a code word for race, and didn’t see a reason to address race in the predominately white town. So Ellis changed tack, swapping diversity for inclusiveness. That term was easier for residents to identify with, and helped church leaders and educators to join in the conversation about Bluffton’s undercurrent of racism. Although Mayor Ellis considers Bluffton a polite town, after he opened the discussion people came forward to tell him about their personal experiences facing racism from other residents when they were children. Today signs adorn three highway entrances and eight schools in town, each proclaiming the city’s commitment to inclusivity.
The mayor’s office didn’t have a computer on the desk when Ted Ellis first opened the door in 1996. These past ten years have taken Bluffton from a town that processed service requests through paper notes to Indiana’s first gigabit city. Along the way they have innovated around traditional farming, had difficult conversations about a history of discrimination, and grown a top notch parks system. Democratic mayors are leading the way for everyone, whether they serve big coastal cities or small towns in the heartland. Ted Ellis is a great reminder that our communities cannot be written off because of their color on an electoral map. He continues to transform Bluffton, unleashing the true potential that lies in each of our cities.