Thursday, August 11, 2011

Impertinent Observations (economic development edition)

The recent dust-up between City Hall and the Economic Development Foundation is not the first time that a potential politicization of local business recruitment efforts has been in the offing – and I remain convinced that was precisely the issue both then and now.

From 2003 to 2009, I sat on the Development Authority of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County.  That is the comparatively recent statutory one, as opposed to the traditional Industrial Development Authority created by a constitutional amendment some decades ago, and about which there is no need to delve into minutiae of the two.  Suffice it to say that the one of which I was a part was developed specifically to handle bond issues for the University’s Real Estate Foundation and Athletic Association, though it exercised most of the same powers as did the traditional IDA.

With that in mind, I have the legally-required economic development training and a few years of practical experience in the area.  Based on that training and experience, I maintain that, rather than being overtly “anti-business,” the powers that be effectively hamstring the Classic City’s efforts to lure expanding and/or relocating businesses as a matter of their ideology.

On the one hand, City Hall has no sway over some local ills, such as the horribly expensive (and yet chronically underperforming) local school system and the lack of direct access to an interstate highway.  On the other hand, though, it does have influence over others, such as a permitting process that is notoriously difficult (and expensive) to navigate* and the decades-long lack of an agreement with Oconee County as to the infrastructure and tax particulars of the Orkin tract (apart from the apparent difficulty of dealing with the Orkin family).

Be that as it may, contrary to what seems to be popular opinion business and industries and not looking for a reason to come to Athens.  Instead, they are looking for reasons to strike as many communities as possible, ours included, off of their long lists of potential expansion sites – and that is where local politics enter the picture.

For an example of this, let’s take a ride in the way-back machine to 2005.  CertainTeed, located on Athena Drive, was contemplating an expansion of its operations, either in Athens or a couple of its other locations.  A local pressure group sought to have the Commission alter its usual bond approval process, namely that of having the mayor sign off on the matter, and instead insert itself into the issuance of bonds for the project by having the full Commission vote on it.  Additionally, and more importantly, the group also petitioned the Commission to place environmental restrictions on CertainTeed as a requirement for approving the bonds.

Such an approach would have failed on two counts: 1) it would have subjected bond issues to political intrigue, ripe with the expectation that the Commission would seek to further mandate its progressive world view** and 2) in any event, the Commission had no authority to impose any restrictions in excess of those mandated by the federal EPA and the state EPD – which made the exercise purely political (see #1 above).  It is fair to observe that City Hall did not go this route, but it is also fair to observe that once word got out about the potential political meddling in the Unified Government’s economic development efforts, as it most assuredly did, it gave pause to those on the receiving end of those efforts.

For whatever reason, CertainTeed ultimately opted to expand elsewhere (surprise, surprise) and the local pressure group claimed “victory” – quite literally.  Those interested may review the particulars of the CertainTeed affair for themselves:

Had I been a business owner considering expanding or re-locating here, such would have summarily ended any flirtations with Athens.  I keep saying that the problem with local economic development efforts is not to be found in those relatively few instances in which the Classic City makes it to a company’s short list and looses out in the end, but is in those vastly more instances in which our fair burgh is not considered in the first place.

This is not so say that local officials do not have a legitimate interest in overseeing bond issues, quite the contrary.  But anyone who does not recognize the obvious political implications of having the Commission, always up for a bit of political posturing, vote on them, not to mention the resulting dampening of economic recruitment efforts, to my mind is simply not being honest.

Then we had the related spectacle of NBAF, just the kind of economic development our community ostensibly wants, being fought by another highly organized and well-funded pressure group (granted, I think that there was a strong tinge of Bush Derangement Syndrome in the opposition, but even so).   Doc succinctly phrased the question thus, “If not this, what?”  No useful answer has been forthcoming.

Now we have this latest sordid episode in which members of the Commission effectively held the EDF’s funding hostage in an attempt to force themselves onto the latter’s board.

And folks wonder why business and industries avoid Athens-Clarke County like the proverbial plague?

*For problems with the permitting and approval process, see the Overview Commission’s report.  Unfortunately, that report seems to have disappeared from the Unified Government’s new (and very expensive) web site.

**If one doesn’t think that, when considering economic development bonds, City Hall would not display the same rigidly ideological approach that it has employed with regard to a variety of other issues (rental registration, definition of family, conservation subdivisions, stream buffers, property tax appeals, condemnation of land for the eastside park, three-lane roads, the Stiles parking lot case, etc.), then I think on is sadly mistaken.

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