Saturday, April 3, 2010

APRIL'S ELECTIONS: And the "economic development" snow job

by Mike Martin for the Columbia Business Times
Mr. and Mrs. Columbia Small-Business Person, please ask yourselves some questions before voting April 6.
Is the narrative about expanding business opportunities in Columbia really about you? Do you need a shovel-ready site or a city subsidy to install electrical infrastructure?   Do you have $10,000 to apply for Tax Increment Financing? Do you or your firm operate a Transportation Development District?
Has billionaire developer Stan Kroenke offered to lease his long-empty Osco building to your business at a great rate? Has Regional Economic Development visited your office -- ever?   Are you able to build a big headquarters similar to the new City Hall?   Are you getting lots of work from the local high and mighty?
If you answered "no" to these questions, then I want to talk about the snow job you've been receiving from city government, the Chamber of Commerce, Council candidates and others who say they're dedicated to improving our local business climate right around election time.
In Columbia, economic development is too much about land development.   If small businesses and the residents who work for them want to prosper, this narrow-minded, trickle-down philosophy that scolds Columbia's bohemian streak and fails to foster small startups in consistent and meaningful ways must end.

Pinnacle of absurdity
Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Henry J. Waters has, during the past year, illustrated how little the local establishment supports the average small-business person.
Calling himself "The Butterfly," Waters became the loudest voice in last year's push to use eminent domain against Bengals Grill owners Jack and Julie Rader and the small-business people, including Adam Dushoff, who operate Addisons and Sophia's restaurants.
Lining up behind Hank: a big-money army, from developer Jeff Smith to Realtor Otto Maly. And leading the charge at City Hall was not that guy in the vest the Chamber of Commerce can't wait to be rid of, or those Council people who vote for bikes and chickens, but "business-friendly" City Manager Bill Watkins.
That these establishment cronies would so easily "go nuclear" to secure land for a new State Historical Society museum is beyond the pale.  But just as bad:  Local business people herded into believing that their only real support lies with these establishment cronies.
We're told that the enemies of capitalism — Columbia City Council members Karl Skala, Barb Hoppe; Ragtag Cinema and True/False Film impresario Paul Sturtz; and Jerry Wade (post-Bob McDavid) — are wrecking the local economy.
This thinking would represent the pinnacle of absurdity if Hank Waters weren't sitting in judgment, once again, as the "endorser-in-chief" of April's candidates and issues.  But he is.

Little bohemia
If those City Council members aren't enemies of capitalism, you ask, why are they focusing on chickens and bicycles instead of shovel-ready development sites?
Smart business people don't ignore large demographics.  For many small businesses, profiting in Columbia means selling goods and services to our bohemian brethren — they of the chicken coops and solar panels and biking to work instead of driving the car.
It means emulating successful entrepreneurs such as Sturtz and his business partner, David Wilson, or the restaurateurs behind Main Squeeze and Café Berlin.  It means John and Vicki Ott's Berry Warehouse renovation, not the latest TDD-hungry Walmart.
It means what one downtown insurance agent wrote the Columbia City Council when the eminent domain push almost snuck through on the Council's automatically approved Consent Agenda.
"Amidst this troubled economy, owning property in The District is a good thing," he wrote. "Many stakeholders have nurtured their investments for decades, waiting to see them mature.  I don't know them personally, but they have been part of the solution to revitalize downtown. They are proud of their investment decision and excited to be part of downtown commerce.  They have struggled to keep their small businesses alive, paid their property taxes and stood beside other District business owners while nurturing their retirement nest eggs.
"Eminent domain can be a nest egg thief.  Don't pull the rug out from under these folks."
Those "enemies of capitalism" the Chamber of Commerce dislikes voted down eminent domain and left the rug in place for those small business people in the District relying on their land holdings -- not our tax dollars -- to fund their retirements.  
Remember that when you vote April 6.

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