GEORGE KENNEDY: Public servants must figure out what is right about 'blight'

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 5:06 p.m. CDT

You’ve no doubt noticed that “blight,” “eminent domain” and “enhanced enterprise zone” lately have become fighting words in our mainly peaceable town.

Call me naïve; call me a dupe of the special interests; but I have trouble seeing Mayor Bob McDavid and the city staff as conspirators out to drive down the value of our homes and employ subterfuge to seize private property.

Still, operating on the principle that where there’s so much hot air there must be at least smoldering embers if not a raging conflagration, I ventured Thursday into the epicenter of evil, aka REDI headquarters.

Mike Brooks makes an unsatisfactory villain. He’s a pleasant, soft-spoken fellow who seems convinced that he’s just doing the job he was hired for – economic development. His title is president of the public/private partnership, the full name of which is Regional Economic Development Inc.

(A side note: REDI is located in the only occupied street-level suite in the new parking garage on Walnut Street opposite the Post Office. You may be as surprised as I was to learn that the 703 parking slots in this widely criticized garage are – as of Thursday morning – fully rented, except for the 122 hourly spaces available to the public. The renters include Columbia College, downtown workers, city employees and the Odle brothers, developers of nearby student apartments.)

But I digress.

I went to see Mr. Brooks because Monday night’s City Council meeting left me both exhausted and confused. I wanted to understand just where the council’s action left the process of creating an enhanced enterprise zone.

An EEZ is the latest entry in the set of alphabet soup programs designed to use tax rebates to lure new or expanding companies. What makes it different from the TIFs and TDDs that already infect Columbia is that the zone is bigger and must include census blocks declared to be blighted.

When REDI produced a preliminary map that designated 60 percent of the city as "blighted," and the council approved a resolution that appeared to endorse it — opposition erupted. A citizen group calling itself “CiViC” quickly formed. The blogosphere was suddenly alive with objections to blight and fears of eminent domain.

Council members began having second thoughts. At Monday night’s meeting, the council approved unanimously the motion by Fifth Ward representative Helen Anthony to draft a resolution that would discard the earlier map and restart the process, with multiple public hearings and much smaller areas labeled blighted.

I asked Mr. Brooks whether the public outcry surprised him. "Absolutely," he replied. After all, 119 EEZs have already been created in communities throughout the state. Only the one in Rolla has generated any serious opposition, he said. Springfield has four such zones.

He told me that his staff is working on a new map, one that includes far less of the city. Eliminated from the zone will be the East Campus neighborhood, the area around the university’s research reactor, the Vanderveen subdivision on the north side of town and several other no-longer-blighted sections.

Ms. Anthony has been the most outspoken council member, so I called her to ask whether she is satisfied and what she thinks of Mr. Brooks.

"I feel better about it," she said. She's still troubled that the process got off to a bad start. However, there will now be ample public discussion of the merits of the EEZ, which should be the real issue, she said.

I asked whether she feels that Mayor McDavid and City Manager Mike Matthes have condescended to her, as Mike Martin wrote in his Columbia Heartbeat blog. Not at all, she said, and added, "I'm not a shrinking violet."

And what about Mr. Brooks and his role? She's a "big fan of Mike," she said. "He's trying to do the right thing."

I'm inclined to agree. Now we and our public servants have to figure out, and argue about, just what the right thing is.

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

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Bill Weitkemper April 20, 2012 | 6:31 a.m.

Mayor McDavid is not a public servant.

City Manager Mike Matthes is the public servant.

You are not the only one that is confused about who is doing what job.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin April 20, 2012 | 8:12 a.m.

Mr. Kennedy leads readers to believe that opponents of the Blight Decree are labeling REDI members villainous and "conspirators out to drive down the value of our homes."

But that's hyperbole that personalizes a non-personal debate, and it doesn't ring true.

Opponents of the decree are arguing its merits on the basis of legal, procedural, and historical facts -- facts that make it wrong for Columbia, in their estimation.

One good indication of the opposition's effectiveness is that Mr. Brooks has finally acknowledged -- to Mr. Kennedy, here, in this column -- that people in Rolla were indeed opposed to the EEZ/Blight Decree.

He and his REDI cohorts have steadfastly maintained exactly the opposite until now. It was their position that "every other community in Missouri readily embraced all 118 other EEZs" which led CiViC to find information to the contrary, like this story:

Sloppy flaws in St. James/Rolla EEZ resolutions

Next, maybe REDI will finally acknowledge that the EEZ has not been all that effective in Springfield.

At that "conflagration of hot air" Mr. Kennedy very nearly called Monday's Council meeting, Dan Goldstein rightly explained that Springfield's unemployment rate is -- and has long been -- higher than Columbia's, even with the EEZ.

Dan Cullimore also noted that Springfield's jobs data doesn't support their EEZ, pre-dating it in certain key places.

It's facts like these I'd rather argue, not personalities. By implying that EEZ opponents think Mr. Brooks is a "villain" or that some vast "conspiracy" exists to drive down property values, Mr. Kennedy misses the point, and joins another local op-editor -- Hank Waters -- in demeaning citizen concerns.

(BTW, the Columbia Heart Beat is no longer a "blog." We left the Blogger software behind last December for Joomla JA-teline, a specialty newspaper software. The Missourian's media guide has already noted this change.)


The Conflagration of Hot Air starts at about 2:30 here:

EEZ problems in Rolla/Phelps/St. James

(Report Comment)
Tyree Byndom April 21, 2012 | 1:08 a.m.

Mr. Kennedy,

Did one citizen stand up to support the blight/map at City Council, besides Mike Brooks?

Not one. Why not?

Mike Brooks admitted and apologized at a meeting that it was done wrong and that they were trying to fix it. How does one fix something by continuing down the same course?

The Councilperson's with an actual conscious, the women, actually mentioned that there is a right way to do this process. Ordinance. Then all citizens can be guided, utilized to find the right path for our city.

They were very surprised when I spoke at the meeting, to Mr. Blight, 1st Ward Councilperson Fred Schmidt, and told him that when he was on my talk show. Straight Talk, that he should make sure that they get the word out, let people be involved, be transparent, and also make sure that the African-American population can get some benefit from this process, when their statistics are the main ones making it possible to get approval of the blight designation.

No one seems to remember that the Black community, lost their economic center in the 50's that was rivaling the White communities commerce and standing, until it was destroyed, replaced, and snatched from their hands and the hands of future generations. Their kids. All of the professionals moved out immediately. There was never one apology to the 400+ families and 100+ businesses, to this day.

They still remember the label of "Columbia's Cancer" that was branded from the Tribune.

From my faith background I am encouraged and directed to be loyal to my government. I have no ill will or hate for any of the major players in the EEZ or Blight issue, at all. I want jobs for my community and have worked for 15 years to support this endeavor. I was actually one of the people that talked to IBM, before they decided to come in town. They asked me to tell them the real. I did. The good and the bad.

You're attempt to judge, dilute, and confuse the people, by calling these guys good, and to paint members of the community, or CiViC as bad, job killers, or any other inaccurate descriptor, without talking to us in the same way, does not smell of justice and true journalism. The truth is hidden in your column. What were you promised? Who controls your pen? Have your integrity and commitment to truth been tainted?

Can a good person, who has good intentions, end up having bad results or committing an atrocity?

(Report Comment)
Tyree Byndom April 21, 2012 | 1:08 a.m.

Part two:

I had a talk with Dave Griggs, about the only African-American member on the EEZ board and he said that he didn't know any African-American leaders and that Louis Gatewood's name was given to him and they choose him. An EEZ board should consist of experts in this field, and not people learning about the process. Louis is a good man, but did not share one independent thought, question or point in the two meetings that I intended. He is merely a pawn, and quota for the EEZ board to gain the acceptance of the Black community. I am sad to say this. The initial process to choose members was also done wrong and should have been a public process, just like a decision with the magnitude of blighting 60% of our city, with no solid answers, proven track records, and committed business lined up, was done wrong.

It does not add up and it will not add up, unless you are going on blind faith, or seeking favor, friends or perks.

In the words of Mike Brooks "I dont see it as conflict of interest that the members of the REDI Board are the ones to get lucrative contracts from our deals. That is why they are there and why they invest." He said that right before he was booed.

Thank God for the members of CiViC, because if they had not stood up, singly and collectively, the resolution would have been passed, our city would be blighted and no citizen would understand what they means, including you. In the 50's, the Black community were silenced.

Tyree Byndom

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