COLUMBIA — City leaders are trying to ease public consternation about how the legal declaration of blight required to establish an enhanced enterprise zone might put areas of the city at risk of eminent domain.
"We are simply trying to do whatever we can to address questions from the community," said Mike Brooks, director of Regional Economic Development Inc.
Columbia legislators and REDI representatives are looking to alter the enhanced enterprise zone's state statute so that a local government's declaration of blight cannot be used to trigger other laws that also require a blight declaration.
"We are trying to clarify what we think already exists," Brooks said. "We want to make sure that the blight designation under the enhanced enterprise zone does not meet the blight requirements for redevelopment authorities."
Brooks also said he plans to include "areas that are identified as 'distressed'" in the definition of blight. "Distressed" areas are pinpointed by the federal government and grant eligibility for economic resources such as Community Development Block Grants to the communities that need them most.
Brooks said he began talking with local legislators last week about changing the definition of blight.
"Our entire local delegation is working together to get a change made," Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said. "We are trying to shrink the blight definition and are very much against the expansion of eminent domain."
Kelly said the intent of narrowing the definition is to prevent indirect negative effects of establishing an enhanced enterprise zone.
"Sometimes harm can be done inadvertently, and we want to eliminate any possibility of inadvertent harm," Kelly said.
The possibility of a blight decree leading to lower property values is one type of "inadvertent harm" the public has repeatedly expressed worries about.
"A concern we hear is that the blight declaration will have a negative effect on real estate," Kelly said. "I don't think that's true."
According to an email sent to Brooks from Allan Moore of the Missouri Appraisal Institute, the establishment of enhanced enterprise zones and the required blight decree "absolutely have not adversely (affected) real estate values," and "market participants do not recognize (enhanced enterprise zones) in their decisions to buy or develop property."
The institute drew those conclusions after examining enhanced enterprise zones in Rolla, Jefferson City and Springfield.
"I am not aware of any other communities that have had this problem with the definition of blight," Brooks said. "At least we have reached out to answer questions about real estate value."
Kelly said he didn't know how soon the legislature might vote on a new blight definition.
"We are in the 'being careful' stage now. We are doing research, examining statutes and taking a close look at language," Kelly said.
Whether altering the definition of blight will alleviate public worries about an enhanced enterprise zone is the "million-dollar question," Brooks said.