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Columbia Missourian

Questions about enhanced enterprise zone linger from public, Downtown Leadership Council

By Hannah Cushman, Madeline O'Leary
February 28, 2012 | 10:49 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — A presentation before the Downtown Leadership Council began with an apology from Mike Brooks, president of Regional Economic Development Inc., for the public's "consternation" regarding the proposed enhanced enterprise zone.

On Monday afternoon, the council and public posed questions regarding the blight decree required to designate the enhanced enterprise zone. Inquiries were also made about evidence supporting the zone's effectiveness in creating jobs.

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Public criticism began in early February when the proposed boundaries of the zone were presented to Columbia City Council. The boundaries are dependent on what can be considered "blighted." The zone boundaries discussed at the Feb. 7 City Council meeting wrap around more than half the city and encompass areas possessing "inadequacies that lead to blight."

Under state statute, areas must be "blighted" to qualify as an enhanced enterprise zone.

Topics addressed by presentation

The "blight" decree's implications for eminent domain faced scrutiny from many Columbia citizens. The enhanced enterprise zone — and thereby the "blight" decree — covers residential areas, which raised concerns of industrial development in neighborhoods.

Industrial development will be reserved for targeted areas within the enhanced enterprise zone, said Dave Griggs, chairman of REDI’s board of directors. These areas, including Discovery Ridge and vacant parcels along Route B, have already been zoned for industrial development.

In a newsletter released Monday, which answered frequently asked questions related to the enhanced enterprise zone, The District wrote that the proposed zone would make condemnation of residential area "neither more nor less likely."

Existing zoning designations would remain intact, rendering residential areas included in the enhanced enterprise zone unattractive options for potential developers, according to the newsletter.

"In order to construct a commercial building or manufacturing plant in a residential area, the developer would have to ignore the many shovel ready sites currently available," according to the newsletter.

To include areas already designated for industrial development, the entire census tract in which the areas are located must also be included in the enterprise zone. A census tract is an area that contains similar population characteristics, economic status and living conditions.

The zone also must be contiguous, said Carrie Gartner, member of REDI's enhanced enterprise zone advisory board and executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District. This accounts for the scope of the proposed boundaries.

But the tracts themselves were also subject to critique at the meeting — they were drawn based on federal census data from 2000, not 2010.

Griggs said tracts based on the most recent census will not be finalized until next year. Thus, data from 2000 was REDI's only option.

Remaining questions about blight

The fate of the blight decree is uncertain.

If passed, the enhanced enterprise zone will expire after 25 years. Whether the blight decree will expire with the zone is unknown.

"That's a question for an attorney," said Bernie Andrews, executive vice president of REDI.

Furthermore, if the declaration of blight is made, and if the application for the enhanced enterprise zone's designation is rejected by the Missouri Department of Economic Development, then whether the blight decree would still stand is also unknown.

The definition of "blight" remains equally vague.

Brooks said repeatedly that REDI's working definition of the term considered only two components: unemployment and poverty.

That definition glosses over the rest of the specifications in the Missouri state statute, which include:

"There's nothing in the statute that says you have to be 100 percent blight," Brooks said in defense of partial use of the statute's definition.

Public comment about effectiveness of the zone

REDI representatives departed before the public comment period, where several people voiced skepticism — even after REDI's clarifications.

Community members commented on the intangible consequences of blight, such as perceived effect on property value and the perpetuation of racial divides, concerns that the presentation did not address. 

Dean Andersen pointed to a lack of evidence provided for concrete results in other enhanced enterprise zones around the state.

"What is the evidence for job creation?" Andersen said. "What if the poor people in these (economically depressed) areas are not qualified to work the manufacturing jobs?"

He questioned whether areas included in the zone in order for the city to meet unemployment and poverty requirements would reap any of its consequent benefits.

"I don't see how the enhanced enterprise zone will prevent poverty flight, and I don’t see how it will prevent commuters from taking these jobs that are meant to benefit the unemployed and poor in these targeted areas," Andersen said.