GEORGE KENNEDY: Council, mayor are listening to EEZ concerns

Thursday, May 24, 2012 | 5:28 p.m. CDT; updated 8:12 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 24, 2012

COLUMBIA — It’s seldom easy and never pleasant to find myself in disagreement with so many people I like and respect. That’s the uncomfortable position I find myself in after Monday’s latest round in our community argument about how best to attract more jobs.

Mary Hussmann, Columbia’s conscience, insisted passionately — if implausibly — that our town has no blighted neighborhoods. Mitch Richards assured City Council members that “there’s nothing personal; it’s just politics” as he warned that his Keep Columbia Free organization would seek to recall them if they voted wrong. Pat Fowler defended her North Central turf, worrying that the council was “pushing the start button on displacement.” Karl Skala waited through 30 other speakers before rising to present a five-point alternative.

Still, after listening to them and the other opponents of creating an enhanced enterprise zone, I come down on the side of Jim Loveless.

(For those who don’t know Mr. Loveless, his public service includes three terms on the City Council and a stint on the Central Missouri Humane Society board of directors. He currently serves as president of Job Point, a nonprofit that provides job training for otherwise unemployable people such as those with disabilities and ex-convicts.)

In his three minutes Monday night, he noted that the dreaded “blight” designation is really nothing more than an “artifact” of state law and that the most important factor driving property values is the economic health of the community. He also reminded us that the current council has promised not to use the EEZ as a rationale for exercising its eminent domain power.

And he described the creation of an EEZ advisory board — which was the only thing the council was voting on — as what I think it is: “a step toward providing a tool” for encouraging economic growth. I agreed with his conclusion that this is “a step in the right direction.” It’s likely to be a modest step.

If you read the Missourian’s excellent two-part analysis last weekend — written by reporters Hannah Cushman and Madeline O’Leary and overseen by city editor Scott Swafford — you know that these zones are widely used in Missouri. You also know that their success has been mixed and that state oversight has been woefully lacking. That’s the context for our ongoing argument.

Before opening the floor to public comment Monday, Mayor Bob McDavid demonstrated that he was listening when speakers at a previous session demanded more community representation on the board. He said he would appoint three holdovers from the earlier board and two newcomers, recommended by both community leaders and council members.

The holdovers are John Strotbeck, manager of the Kraft Foods plant that is the city’s largest industrial employer; Randy Morrow, vice president of Boone Hospital Center; and Louis Gatewood, representing the Columbia Housing Authority. The new appointees are Jeremy Root, a lawyer who has been a critic of the EEZ, and Anthony Stanton, a heavy construction trainer at Job Point.

The other members of the new board are Jim Whitt, representing the Columbia School Board, and County Collector Pat Lensmeyer, appointed by the Boone County Commission.

After hearing the opponents and a handful of supporters, the council voted 7-0 to create the board. The unanimity, though not the outcome, surprised me.

The newest council member, Second Ward representative Michael Trapp, offered a pretty good summary of the council’s position. After stating the case for job creation and explaining that REDI (which stands for Regional Economic Development Inc.) is in fact the city’s Economic Development Department, he said, “We’re trying to bring the community together as best as we can, but we may have to agree to disagree.”

His Sixth Ward colleague, Barbara Hoppe, prefaced her vote by saying, as several critics had, that we need better data on the success rate of this and other tax abatement programs. The city charter must be amended to restrict eminent domain uses, and the “blight map” must be as small as possible. She promised follow-up attention.

Fourth Ward representative Daryl Dudley pointed out that while the EEZ board gets to work, so can its critics. If there are other and better approaches to job creation, he encouraged the critics to find and propose them.

Contrary to what some of those critics claim, it’s clear, I think, that our mayor and council are listening and responding to their constituents’ concerns. It’s also clear that they and the much-vilified REDI staff are grasping for any tool, no matter how unproven, in what has become a national bidding contest for new employers.

Finally, with a high degree of confidence, I’ll venture a few predictions.

  • None of the council members will be recalled, despite the best efforts of Keep Columbia Free.
  • The EEZ, whittled down in size, will have less impact than its supporters hope or its critics fear.
  • This argument will continue.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Mark Foecking May 25, 2012 | 7:07 a.m.

THe Missourian, the the two reporters that wrote this, should be commended on their excellent, even handed, in depth look at this issue. I also agree with George here. I do not think, and it has not been shown with any credibility elsewhere in the state, that blight/EEZ's have significant positive or negative effects. Most of what we've heard in this discussion has been speculative rather than concrete.

I watched a significant part of the Council discussion, and Mayor McDavid is right to point out that while we may be missing out on taxes from a company that decides to expand here in the absence of tax abatement, we will still be ahead if a company decides to come here because of tax abatements. If the company doesn't come, we won't get any new taxes at all. Incentives for business expansion are very competitive all over the country, and often communities have to be content with what the market will bear, so to speak.

I don't have a strong opinion on this, because I don't think it matters that much one way or another. Manufacturing has gone away because of global competition, not anything government has done or not done.


(Report Comment)
linda green May 25, 2012 | 8:37 a.m.

I urge everyone in this community to read the book, "The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation" by Greg LeRoy. It's available in its entirety for free at

LeRoy is Executive Director of Good Jobs First and is an expert with decades of experience in dealing with corporate subsidies all over the U.S. LeRoy recently provided testimony and model legislation to the Missouri House Economic Development Committee.

Also, everyone is invited to an interactive wide-screen webcam presentation entitled, "Is EEZ/"Blight" Good? for Columbia?", including question and answer, with LeRoy in the Friends Room of the Columbia Public Library at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 31st.

We owe it to ourselves and to our neighbors, whose homes may be designated "blighted", to be fully informed on this issue.

(Report Comment)
linda green May 25, 2012 | 8:48 a.m.

I might add that the term, "Blight" attached to property will have standing in a court of law as the first legal step toward eminent domain, whereas the verbal reassurances of this mayor and city council will afford no legal protection whatever in court.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin May 25, 2012 | 11:35 a.m.

Full disclosure: George Kennedy is a member of the Food Bank Board of Directors, a group that has taken a strong advocacy position with regard to the Blight Decree/EEZ:

Though Mr. Kennedy disclosed that fact in this September article:

...he continues not to disclose it in editorials about this debate, some of which have included high praise for the Food Bank and its director, Peggy Kirkpatrick:

In continuing not to disclose, Mr. Kennedy is violating the Missourian's own conflict of interest standards:

...and his own advice on the issue:

That Mr. Kennedy's arguments fly in the face of the Missourian's own investigation into EEZs only makes his voice on this issue more suspect.

This is important because the Food Bank has close ties to REDI, the chief proponents of the Blight Decree/EEZ, and to members of the Blight Board, including Kraft Foods manager John Strotbeck, who also sits on the Food Bank Board.

In this story, Food Bank director Peggy Kirkpatrick -- whose testimony in front of the City Council has been a chief driver of non-profit involvement in this episode -- is seen taking a $15,000 check from Mr. Strotbeck:

The story describes how Kraft -- a potential EEZ beneficiary -- is the Food Bank's largest supporter. General Mills, Wal-Mart, and Kraft Foods are the Food Bank's three "corporate partners." All are potential beneficiaries of corporate handouts such as TIF, TDD, and EEZ.

In this photo, REDI investor Commerce Bank is giving the Food Bank a check for $100,000:

Does all that money buy food for the hungry? Some of it does, certainly. But just as much pays staff salaries, and there are lots of staffers to pay:

REDI investors populate local non-profit boards in large numbers, a matter that ought to be strongly debated, both for its local impact (what happens when all these corporate donors come to collect; whose voices do they co-opt) and its relevance to a growing national debate about corporate welfare and the shenanigans that enable it.

More troubling to me though is that one of the area's finest journalists -- George Kennedy -- is enabling a charade that in any other context he would roundly -- and rightly -- condemn.

(Report Comment)
Elizabeth Conner Stephens May 25, 2012 | 2:11 p.m.


After your comments earlier this week, we included a disclosure about George Kennedy's role on the Food Bank board in his May 10 column. That was an oversight on our part, and we do want to be as transparent as possible about our columnists and editors' involvement in the community.

We appreciate that you pointed this out and held us accountable.

George sent me this note to post on his behalf in response:
I'm embarrassed, as I should be. Except for the piece in September, which Mike links to, I've intended to stay away from the Food Bank. My failure to repeat the disclosure in the more recent column was a lapse for which I have no excuse. I was glad to see Mike's own disclosure of his and his wife's involvement with the anti-EEZ organization they helped form.


Elizabeth Conner
Opinion editor

(Report Comment)
David Sautner May 25, 2012 | 2:41 p.m.

You'd think that with all of those powerful people on the Food Bank board that the food at the Food Bank would be just absolutely excellent, I mean it should be gourmet food! Poor children rely on the food bank, it is a disgrace that with such wealthy patrons that the quality and quantity of food does not match up.

In any case,

REDI and the EEZ are representative of what is known as Crony Capitalism. This means that contractual bids for building on enterprise zones are exclusive and selective and not open to all. First off, in order to qualify for a development bid the contractor has to provide at least $100,000 as a start up investment and also agree to employ at least two people. This excludes someone who, say, gets a grant from the USDA in the sum of $10,000 to build an urban farm in center city Columbia and employ 20 workers.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin May 25, 2012 | 3:59 p.m.

Well -- at least Mr. Kennedy is taking SOME of his own advice:

"Act in haste, repent at leisure, the old saying has it."

(Report Comment)

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