The most insightful comment to come out of last year’s debate about ward realignment was Mayor Bob McDavid's. You'll remember the lesson he said he'd learned: "You never want to get in the way of an engaged citizenry."
The mayor and the rest of us seem to be headed for an opportunity to revisit that bit of political wisdom. The issue this time is the proposal to declare a major chunk of our town an "Enhanced Enterprise Zone." The key players — City Council, School Board, County Commission — all seem to be in favor. At their last meeting, council members voted unanimously for a resolution to create the advisory board that will guide the process.
The goal is to lure new employers by offering tax breaks. There currently are 118 such zones in the state, I'm told, with Springfield's three regarded as especially successful, having generated multiple millions in new industry. If you'll pardon the jargon, an EEZ is like a TIF, only bigger. (The Tiger Hotel and the former Regency Hotel on Broadway are being redeveloped as TIFs.)
So what's the problem, you ask? In search of an answer, I joined about 70 good citizens Wednesday evening at the Parkade Plaza. The dominant mood, I'd say, was suspicion, with an undertone of anger and broadly shared confusion. But those folks were well and truly engaged.
They already have a name for their fledgling organization. It's CiViC, an acronym for "Citizens involved and invested in Columbia."
Leading the discussion were Mike Martin, a journalist and rental property owner introduced as "our favorite local blogger," and Pat Fowler, a lawyer by training and a First Ward activist by inclination.
The problem for them and, as far as I could tell, nearly everybody else in the room, is that the first step toward an EEZ is a declaration that the zone is blighted or likely to become so. Their fear is that a declaration of blight could lead to the seizure of private property through eminent domain. The preliminary map of the zone covers about half the city, mainly the eastern half, and a few chunks of adjoining unincorporated land.
Mike brought up the abortive attempt a couple of years ago to use eminent domain for a new Missouri State Historical Society building downtown. He even reached back 50 years to criticize Columbia's urban renewal.
Pat and other speakers worried about the possible impact on property values of a blight designation.
The gathering had plenty of angst but more questions than actual facts. Thursday morning I posed some of the questions to Dave Griggs, the businessman who heads REDI. Another acronym, REDI stands for Regional Economic Development Inc., which has brought us the IBM technical support center and that is pushing the EEZ proposal.
There's a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication surrounding the EEZ, he told me. Nobody from CiViC has talked to him. There's no connection, he said, between the proposed zone and eminent domain. The blight designation is required by state law. Attorneys for city and county have assured REDI that eminent domain is irrelevant.
The EEZ won't reduce current tax revenues and won't affect zoning, he said. Under the law, it can't be used to bring in retailers, educational or religious institutions or bars and restaurants. The boundaries are preliminary. The City Council must first ratify the plan, and then it must be approved by the state's Department of Economic Development.
(Just to show that confusion wasn't limited to the CiViC crowd, Dave first told me that his flooring company wasn't included in the "blighted" area. He called back after meeting with the advisory board to say he had learned it is included. Of course, he pointed out in both our chats, the map is subject to alteration.)
First reading of the official ordinance will be April 2. Leading up to that, council members can expect calls and emails from this engaged citizenry. The Council has already sought to soften the “blight” language by amending the resolution to say that the zone "contains inadequacies that lead to blight."
As we saw with ward redistricting, our grass-roots democracy can be messy and sometimes combative. Getting to EEZ won’t be easy.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.