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.