GUEST COMMENTARY: Blight designation has no place in Columbia

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

The Missouri Department of Economic Development says there are 118 enhanced enterprise zones in Missouri. Columbia’s Regional Economic Development Inc. and some Columbia City Council members have concluded we in Columbia should join the crowd.

To qualify for enhanced enterprise zone, a town or city is required to map out a blight zone that must connect to the chosen industrial area. Then REDI will work to entice industry by tax incentives and property tax abatement on prospective investments.

But much of REDI’s efforts to establish blight and an enhanced enterprise zone have taken place behind closed doors, without input from current Columbia residents and without weighing all the consequences.

Also, REDI is using outdated 2000 census figures to decide who will be in Columbia’s blight zone and who won’t be. Experience has taught us that just because everyone is doing it doesn’t make it right.

At a March hearing, residents asked a Missouri Department of Economic Development representative for statistics regarding the amount of jobs created and the economic impact on each of the towns or cities with enhanced enterprise zones. We were told that the state of Missouri doesn’t keep those statistics. It is irresponsible for REDI to ask the council to pass this unmeasured and unknown blight/enhanced enterprise zone "tool for their toolkit" (as they refer to it) without any clear data that it would benefit our community.

No area of Columbia should qualify as blighted. There are some areas, especially in the First Ward, that are more rundown and in need of jobs, but the enhanced enterprise zone plan shows no commitment or even thought to focus on improving those areas.

It appears REDI is using the First Ward simply to provide the high unemployment and poverty statistics to qualify for the enhanced enterprise zone designation.

Even if the enhanced enterprise zone designation does result in some jobs, the REDI plan unfortunately targets the location of these jobs to the outer edges of Columbia, where bus transportation is nonexistent for the people most in need of those jobs.

It also looks as if REDI is twisting and abusing the blight definition — deceptively labeling citizens' property and homes as blighted when they obviously are not.

There is no guarantee that any permanent jobs — or any jobs at all — would come from this blight/enhanced enterprise zone proposal. And while the tax incentives connected to the REDI plan might influence a business decision to select Columbia, would we ever know what other factors played a part in their choosing us as a finalist?

Let's say a manufacturing company does come, and later, another area of Missouri or the U.S. offers even more incentives for that factory to move. To persuade them to stay, do we then engage in even more tax breaks?

Isn't the result an endless taxpayer giveaway bidding process?

What are the probable blight/enhanced enterprise zone effects on current residents and businesses? To insiders and outsiders, blight implies disfigured, blemished, dangerous, scarred, defective places. Who would choose to buy and/or live in an area that acquires such a negative term, and who should accept that it is OK to impose this designation onto any of our neighborhoods' homes and property?

If REDI continues to push this unproven and unpopular plan and if council members continue to support it, then the executive director of REDI, all the REDI board members, the Enhanced Enterprise Zone Advisory Board and all council members should immediately decide to include their homes, families and neighbors in the blight zone. Then they would feel the outcry and negativity of this effort on their very doorsteps. Or is blight only for other people?

Questions continue to mount: What is the environmental impact? How much money would our schools lose, and how would our children be affected by the tax loss? How much more infrastructure would be needed, and who pays for all that? How will the rest of us make up this tax giveaway? Who will benefit, and who will lose?

There are many good and thoughtful reasons to oppose the REDI/enhanced enterprise zone proposal. Naming any Columbia area as  blighted is not worth the divisive threat to community relationships or the endangerment to our positive reputation in the state and nation. 

We should not allow 1 square inch of Columbia to be labeled as a blight area.

Mary Hussmann is a Columbia resident and an organizer with GRO — Grass Roots Organizing.

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Mark Foecking April 19, 2012 | 10:41 a.m.

I tend to agree with Mayor McDavid and Fred Schmidt that "blight" in this context, is just semantics. You can call an area anything you want, but that does not mean most people would consider it such.

Eminent domain can proceed without anything like this, and there have been few examples of eminent domain attempts in the city since the 50's. I'm not really concerned about the designation changing much in that respect.

The question no one has really answered is if there are real benefits to having an EEZ in the first place? Where are statistics showing the economic benefits? I've looked some and really haven't found any (although I've found several Missouri cities that have formed EEZ's without ill effect, but perhaps without positive effect either).

If it can't be shown that this is worth doing, then we shouldn't do it. If there's few or no examples of increased economic activity in EEZ's, then we shouldn't do it. That's why I signed the petition to have this resolution removed.


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