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.