The Media School

Economic and Sustainable Development’s Brian Payne thrives in Bloomington

April 2nd, 2019 by
Photograph by Cam Trippel

Brian Payne loves working with the people in the city's Economic and Sustainable Development Department, including SPEA fellow Ben Bell. Payne has lived in Bloomington for two years, working as an assistant director for the department.

Brian Payne sat comfortably on his black-cushioned chair in a City Hall conference room in downtown Bloomington, clapping his hands after the lights automatically shut off.

Surrounded by white walls, tattooed with city maps and historical photographs, his eyes squinted through his glasses while grinning infectiously.

“We go all out here at the city,” he said as the lighting returned.

Payne is one of the five staff members in Bloomington’s Economic and Sustainable Development Department. Yet, his personal journey to Bloomington has been anything but sustainable. The 36-year-old Minneapolis native has switched career paths several times and foresees himself potentially moving on once again.

“I still think second baseman for the Twins is out of the question,” he said jokingly.

Payne, a two-sport college athlete, graduated from Lawrence University in 2004 with degrees in English, philosophy and psychology. Originally wanting to pursue law, he attended the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill.

He became obsessed with law and strived “to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves” and “make change for the purpose of bettering society.”

But mind-numbing research, mundane procedures and what he believes to be a broken criminal justice system changed Payne’s mind.

“Law school taught me that I did not want to be a lawyer,” he laughed. “So, I pivoted to politics.”

Photograph by Cam Trippel

While Payne says some of his work in the office may be boring, he still enjoys working with and helping small businesses in the Bloomington area.

After graduating law school, Payne spent his next five years in the Mecca of U.S. politics: Washington D.C.

Throughout these years, he worked as a field organizer for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. He also served as a policy advisor for two members of Congress and for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, dealing with legislative affairs.

While working on Obama’s re-election campaign, he met his future wife Michelle. The two remained together for another five years and ultimately moved to Bloomington so she could pursue a doctorate in energy policy at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, the top-ranked program in the country.

“I am a trailing spouse,” Payne proudly admitted.

The two married in July 2017 and are expecting their first child in a couple months. Michelle will graduate in two years, and the family will be forced to move, since she cannot immediately become a professor at a school she just graduated from.

But for the time being, Payne loves working with the Bloomington community and how unique its economics, businesses and social scenes are.

“We’re one city, but there’s really kind of two Bloomingtons,” he said. “There’s 40,000 or more people connected with the university, and it’s a town of 84,000 people.”

Payne believes the balance of small business and the college atmosphere makes Bloomington a fascinating place to work in economic and sustainable development.

“Bloomington’s not Bloomington because of McDonald’s and Kroger,” he said. “It’s because of the small businesses, and we try to support them wherever we can, and I see that as one of the major functions of my job.”

“We’re one city, but there’s really kind of two Bloomingtons. There’s 40,000 or more people connected with the university, and it’s a town of 84,000 people.” – Brian Payne, assistant director/small business development, City of Bloomington’s Economic and Sustainable Development Department

Payne’s background in politics and legislative work has helped his current department, according to his boss, Alex Crowley, director of Bloomington’s Economic and Sustainable Development Department.

“His background and his knowing of how to present things to legislature is good, but he’s also just very personable,” he said.

Chatting, laughing and joking around are common in the department of five, who clearly have chemistry.

Such camaraderie is what Payne will miss most when he’s forced to move.

“I love Bloomington,” he said firmly. “It’s a good fit. I love the people here. My boss and my coworkers are incredible.”

While he’ll be sad to leave, new locations always bring new opportunities, and Payne hopes to follow a goal he’s long dreamed of.

“When we do move somewhere more permanently, I’m definitely interested in running for office,” he said.

While Payne said he won’t immediately seek out any national positions, he didn’t rule anything out. Every big shot must start somewhere.

“I think I would start for school board or city council or something like that,” he said.