Local Commentary

The Little City Weed

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In response to criticism of its flaccid economic development efforts, and possessing weak political leadership which wants to both avoid making systemic improvements and needs to be constantly praised in public, the Falls Church City Council has set out on its own to reheat a failed economic development strategy from the 1990s.

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In response to criticism of its flaccid economic development efforts, and possessing weak political leadership which wants to both avoid making systemic improvements and needs to be constantly praised in public, the Falls Church City Council has set out on its own to reheat a failed economic development strategy from the 1990s.

The council is pursuing a policy which relies on two worn out ideas from twenty years ago: create development zones and repackage developer-focused economic giveaways. The idea is if you tell developers what you want in an area they will build it; and if you offer developers corporate welfare at taxpayer expense they will build it faster.

Local political veterans will recognize the idea. This was the failed David Snyder-Mabry Era idea from 1996 which created (still undeveloped) MUR zones throughout the city and promoted a vapid technology tax credit program. The strategy failed because it was premised on the arrogant falsity that Falls Church City can dictate to markets. That is, by the sheer power of its wonderfulness the city can force investors to build what it wants (village style commercial only, thank you very much), where it wants it (someplace where it looks good to my eye, causes no traffic, does not cut down any trees, and is not too close to any schools), irrespective of reality.

The corollary to the strategy is policymakers will wait to get exactly what they want. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Some Great Investor will arise from the mist and do exactly what they want on our muddy vacant lots if we just wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Schools will be fully funded next year if we just wait. City services will stop declining if we just wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

Do local economic incentives have any effect on businesses at all? The jury is out on the debate. There is some evidence incentives targeted at whole industries can increase short term employment rates in major metropolitan areas suffering from recalcitrant unemployment – but how is this applicable to Falls Church? A small city, in a Dillon Rule state, with high employment, an ancient infrastructure, and no local industry, wants to repackage taxpayer giveaways to compete in the DC Metro region?

What are the proposed incentives? Which ones are new? Why does council think its corporate welfare program will work? How will giveaways be monitored? How will they be administered? Why are they targeted at developers and not businesses? What type of development is being targeted? Who decided what to target? What about existing businesses?

A reality check. This council tried twice to change the city charter to turn local development authority over to the state. This council campaigned against local businesses deriding them as a “special interest group.” This council killed local affordable workforce housing. This council blocked the city center. This council rejected federal transportation dollars. This council has raised tax rates by twenty percent. This council tried to defund city schools.

This council is posing, but not serious about economic development.


Michael Gardner is a quixotic citizen and founder of the Blueweeds community blog.

 

 

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