GEORGE KENNEDY: Engaged citizens were key to EEZ defeat

Thursday, December 13, 2012 | 4:49 p.m. CST; updated 8:43 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 13, 2012

I called Mary Hussmann, the indefatigable driving force behind Grass Roots Organizing, first thing Thursday morning to congratulate her on the news. That was the news that the board of REDI voted Wednesday to abandon efforts to create an Enhanced Economic Zone in parts of Columbia.

“I think it’s a better town today than it was yesterday,” she said.

As Raymond Howze and Richard Webner reported in Thursday’s Missourian, the REDI board was responding to public opinion. Having spent a good deal of time all year listening to the expressions of that opinion, I can testify to the passion generated by just one word in the poorly written state statute creating the EEZ.

That word, of course, was “blight.”

Under the law, in order to be able to lure employers with tax breaks, the area of the community in which such employers might locate must be declared blighted. Some of the more outspoken opponents made the mental leap from a blight declaration to the use of eminent domain, the actual taking of private property by the government.

I’ve thought all along that the fear was exaggerated. This isn’t the urban renewal era of the 1960s. The parallel some saw with that era’s destruction of Columbia’s small African-American business district was both a misreading of history and a misunderstanding of today’s political reality. Still, nobody wants to live in a blighted neighborhood.

The EEZ at its best would have been a modestly useful development tool. Its principle utility, as REDI President Mike Brooks explained to me, would have been as a lure for employers too small or not high-paying enough to qualify for the state’s Quality Jobs tax credit program.

I have yet to see any evidence of either great benefit or serious harm from the EEZs that already exist around the state.

The argument became bigger than the real issue. The argument over the EEZ, it appears to me, has been the latest episode in the ongoing and unequal conflict between citizens resentful at being pushed around and those they see as doing the pushing. It has been a contest of wills between the power of public opinion and the power structure.

Other recent episodes have matched developers Jon and Nathan Odle against the residents of St. Joseph Street and the residents of the Regency mobile home park against the apartment developers. We’ve seen who won those fights. In local politics, it’s the pro-development grays against the preservationist greens. We’ll see that conflict again in next spring’s City Council election.

I talked to Mike Brooks after I got off the phone with Ms. Hussmann. He was philosophical. He knew he’d lost, he said, after he met for more than an hour of questions and answers with the Parkade neighborhood association.

“At the end, a gentleman stood up and said he appreciated the role of REDI and the need for jobs, but he just didn’t want his home to be blighted,” he recalled.

“So I knew the public understood, but they couldn’t get past that one word.”

Now that we’ve gotten past it, what next? We still have people unemployed and underemployed. Poverty and hunger haven’t disappeared. Demand for the services of the United Way and the Food Bank has never been higher.

I asked Mr. Brooks whether REDI has any promising prospects. He replied, “We’re working on a number of projects. Whether they’re promising, I can’t tell you. It comes down to trying to be creative.” REDI’s recent successes, he reminded me, range from using tax breaks and the purchase of a building to lure IBM, which is nearing its goal of 600 local employees, to providing office space and guidance to the startup company Beyond Meat, which has grown from an MU research project to manufacturing imitation chicken.

When I asked Ms. Hussmann what’s next for GRO, she said she’d love to work with REDI to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to something closer to a living wage.

I’ll be surprised if that partnership comes to pass.

This is a season of hope, though, and maybe there’s something hopeful in the fact that the REDI board was smart enough to give up a losing effort and the fact that an engaged citizenry did prevail, at least this time.

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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