Every so often, an issue captures the collective imagination of the community in a way that gives rise to an emergent process for civic concern and responsibility. So it now goes for the recent, unanimously approved Columbia City Council Resolution R20-12 to establish an enhanced enterprise zone board and certify a rather large portion of the city and a smaller portion of Boone County as blighted. The resolution then goes on to describe the definition of blight per Missouri state statutes and delineates the area to be included. Strangely enough, much of the EEZ area is residential.
The EEZ is a state tax abatement incentive program advocated by Regional Economic Development Inc. The EEZ program is presumably intended to provide a means by which to attract industrial and manufacturing capacity and to redevelop selected portions of the blighted areas.
With little fanfare, the proposal for the state application was offered by REDI to the City Council at a Jan. 17 pre-council work session as an informational presentation and was subsequently placed on the Feb. 6 regular council meeting agenda for a vote, with the resolution language publicly posted approximately four days earlier.
Needless to say, the Internet began to light up with questions, answers and comments as an emergent civic response to a controversial local issue. That response quickly gave rise to a new citizens group named CiViC, Citizens Invested and Involved in Columbia, which seeks to question the wisdom of blighting large portions of the city and county in the name of economic development.
I am always fascinated by these kinds of emergent civic responses, both historical and modern. Here in Columbia, the council’s recent approval of this resolution hints at a similar process in the mid-1950s when the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority was established. That action produced a backlash, albeit an eventually unsuccessful one, depending on your perspective. Much of that civic backlash was blunted and frustrated by the limitations of the grass roots organizing technology of the era. Not so in this modern era of the Internet.
Even if some people would like to return to another era, the way in which these emergent groups discuss and organize on civic listservs, blogs, Facebook pages and in an overwhelmingly participatory, everyone-has-a-voice fashion, has changed the civic and social landscape forever.
As much as some among us bemoan the state of things today — and there's no denying that certain of our attitudes are not only old-fashioned but downright archaic and harmful— we have to acknowledge that we are in an unprecedented time of change. One thing the Internet is very, very good for is to serve as a place where the self-righteous, the inauthentic, those who overreach in their use of power or the blatantly ridiculous can be brought to a kind of public justice. The Internet catalyzes backlash. It has become an extremely useful tool for civic and social engagement and the technology of choice for grass roots organizing.
But back to the local CiViC process. After the informal email exchanges and Facebook conversations and comments, ranging from questions to suggestions to shared informational links, a listserv of about three dozen people emerged to prepare for CiViC’s first organizational meeting and extended an open invitation to the public. That well-attended meeting was held on Feb. 22 and the agenda included several brief informational presentations regarding the content of the council’s resolution, the tax abatement impact of public school financing, the potential for eminent domain abuse, the blight decree and the potential impacts on residential real estate. It even addressed the significance of a provision in the state EEZ statute that provides for a process for “waivers from burdensome local regulations, ordinances, and orders which serve to discourage economic development . . . in the EEZ” — a process offered to businesses, but not to residents within the blight-designated areas.
The subsequent lively public discussion, perhaps predictably, ran the gamut of citizen concern from the psychology of blight to property values to Columbia City Council and Boone County representation. Also predictably, it included a discussion of political strategy moving forward to oppose the yet-to-be published, proposed EEZ ordinance. The requisite public hearing and vote on that EEZ ordinance is now scheduled for April 16.
This democratic,in the best sense of that term, evening ended with pledges of financial support, including contributions from those present, to carry forward CiViC’s efforts for Sunshine requests, legal assistance, etc. CiViC engagement, in its participatory, everyone-has-a-voice fashion, has the potential to significantly change the civic and social landscape of the future, and right here in our very own community.
Karl Skala is a former Third Ward City Councilman.