GEORGE KENNEDY: Many questions still surround enhanced enterprise zones

Thursday, March 1, 2012 | 1:34 p.m. CST; updated 4:34 p.m. CST, Friday, March 9, 2012

The poor will always be with us. That’s what the Bible says and the decennial census confirms.

If you want to learn about tax abatements, though, you’ll do better with section 135.950 of Missouri’s revised statutes.

And if you’re wondering what the poor and the privileged have in common, look no further than our town’s controversy du jour, the enhanced enterprise zone (EEZ).

It turns out, you see, that if we want to take advantage of the statute to lure new industry to the university’s Discovery Ridge or the underground labyrinth at the quarry adjoining North Stadium Boulevard, the EEZ must include the census blocks that are lowest in income and highest in unemployment along with the actual sites targeted for development.

Contrary to what you may have thought, then, the least among us are essential to enhanced economic opportunity. Whether they’ll benefit is just one of many questions.

I wrote and some of you may have read last week about the suspicious citizens who gathered to share their anger and their foreboding about the possible effects of an official designation of  “blight” for half the city.

A few of those worriers were present Tuesday when Mike Brooks, the president of Regional Economic Development Inc. — usually referred to as REDI — explained the rules and the possibilities of the proposed EEZ. They and a handful of journalists sat around the edges of the City Hall conference room. His intended audience, members of the Downtown Leadership Council, was more representative of the economic elite. They occupied the table in the center of the room.

The leaders seemed less hostile than the followers, but they asked many of the same questions. This week there were answers.

Brian Treece, vice chairman of the leadership council, wondered how to reconcile the city’s publicized pride in various “Top 10” listings with the designation of blight. Mr. Brooks explained the requirements of the law.

A bit later, Mr. Treece asked how the EEZ would benefit the poor and unemployed. By creating jobs, Mr. Brooks replied.

When he offered a law firm with out-of-state clients as one example of a qualifying business, I couldn’t help wondering how many unemployed lawyers we have. To be fair, I’m sure REDI will look harder for manufacturers than attorneys.

Mr. Brooks pointed out that the EEZ rules are more flexible than some better-known business lures. The “Quality Jobs” enticement beloved by our governor, for example, requires 40 new jobs and salaries above $30,000. An EEZ requires a minimum of two new workers paid at least three-quarters of the county average wage.

In return, the company would have up to half its local taxes forgiven for up to 10 years. Tax credits from the state would also be available.

Nobody mentioned Mamtek, the Chinese prospect that won not only tax credits but a new building in Moberly before it was exposed as a myth. The Missouri Department of Economic Development, which approved that handout while ignoring warning signs, also oversees the 118 EEZ’s already established all over the state.

Another good question came from Janet Hammen of the leadership council. How are those other EEZs working, she asked. The answer was that a consultant hired by REDI looked into zones created in Springfield, Rolla and Jefferson City and found no negative consequences. I don’t know whether Ms. Hammen was satisfied, but I would have preferred something a little more positive. If avoiding harm is the standard, that’s setting the bar pretty low, isn’t it?

Mr. Brooks, in his opening remarks, had said, “I’m sorry that we’ve managed to raise such consternation in the community.”

I didn’t hear consternation from the downtown leaders. They took no action Tuesday, though they probably will later. Still, as Mr. Brooks left for another meeting, I found myself hoping for his sake that he isn’t working on commission.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Mike Martin March 1, 2012 | 4:57 p.m.

Though I did not attend, my understanding was that the DLC group sat dumbfounded through much of Mr. Brooks' presentation, as he talked about golfing at Old Hawthorne -- part of the blighted area that "we all know isn't really blighted," he reportedly said; tried to explain why the old Osco lot isn't included in the blighted area; and how REDI is using student unemployment and "poverty" levels in their census calculations.

"The answer was that a consultant hired by REDI looked into zones created in Springfield, Rolla and Jefferson City and found no negative consequences."

Have to wonder if that consultant actually visited Springfield.

"No negative consequences?" Yeah, right:

(Report Comment)
Steve Spellman March 1, 2012 | 9:13 p.m.

At the least, this needs to be vetted more. REDI, etc. need to have an education campaign, with public forums, becuase this is a pretty big deal. And, like the TIFs and IBM deal (accusations of back-room deals aside), these are different animals than what the community is used to.

In the past, there's been taxes, regulations, Planning & Zoning - for good or bad people know how that works. These Economic Development "tools" are just that, different tools, and very few people can grasp what all they mean, and what's good or bad, who they help or hurt.

However, REDI, now the Council,etc. seem to have presented this as just a necessity, and that's it, so let's now just get 'er done. Well, it CAN'T work that way.

At least slow this train down. That's my diplomacy.

(Report Comment)
Rosie Gerding March 2, 2012 | 12:47 p.m.

Mr. Martin, using the phrase "my understanding was" is a completely lame way of saying whatever you want without taking any responsibility for it.
No one was dumbfounded -- REDI was invited to speak at the meeting, and both the DLC board and the audience listened carefully and politely. There was no rude behavior, no jeering at the speakers, no interrupting with angry tirades. This is how normal, civilized people behave at public meetings.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin March 5, 2012 | 3:05 p.m.

Mrs. Gerding:

First time posting here I see.

Please -- stop the canards about how the "civilized" behave. Those old saws are just one more way to rob average citizens of their voices -- the constant jabs and cuts about jeering, angry mobs ready to storm the Bastille yada yada yada -- yawn.

The same voices rose in condemnation of the uncivilized, unwashed masses when Darryl Dudley met with citizens over the Ward Gerrymandering scheme.

I attended that meeting with many other concerned Columbians, and saw none of the "tirades" that became part of that debate's local mythology, particularly after former Matt Blunt operative Rob Monsees -- who did not attend -- made hay.

I take full ownership of what I write and always have. And I heard differently than you did. Several attendees at the aforementioned DLC meeting were indeed dumbfounded at the oddball explanations Mr. Brooks offered for this Blight Declaration's truly oddball borders.

Osco lot not included but Old Hawthorne golf club included? If you're not dumbfounded, you're not paying attention.

(Report Comment)

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