Do-gooders and the well intentioned abound in our society. They mean well; they want to improve conditions; they become activists for their visions. The usual result: bigger government, more regulation, increasing taxes, less individual freedom. During a recent meeting of the Wallace town council, all this lurked behind an impressive presentation by the executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Smithfield Development Corporation (www.SmithfieldNCDevelopment.com).
Chris Johnson projected his enthusiasm to the council members and about 20 in the audience. “I’ve got my heart in it,” said Mr. Johnson about his mission to revitalize the town of Smithfield. Johnson lives in Smithfield and has commercial interests there. By his account he has been successful.
Downtown Smithfield Officials have a “Master Plan”; they have a 93 percent business occupancy rate (up from 50 percent in the 70s and 80s); a three-mile trail connects two neighborhoods with the business district and a community park. Downtown has improved “walkability” and the removal of overhead wires vastly improves its appearance.
Johnson’s “DSDC Accomplishments” also lists: “Historic Preservation.” However, no building (Mr. Johnson’s office) older than 1850 exists from a community chartered in 1777. Overall, downtown now has more “character” and exudes a “Sense of Place,” according to Johnson’s power-point presentation. But at what cost?
These revitalization projects rarely pay for themselves. Money taken from uninterested citizens is distributed in the form of grants to satisfy the visions of a few local interests (“stakeholders”). First a bureaucracy must be organized. Johnson’s DSDC has a full-time director, a part-time assistant, and a 15-member board. It is supported from a “Municipal Service District” (MSD) tax. Declaring a historic district brings in state tax credits and federal funding. Nonprofits have the advantage of operating a kind of shell-game with private and public monies shifted around under real estate deals.
In the Smithfield Historic Area Revitalization Plan (SHARP) tax money from Johnson County, the town of Smithfield and the MSD gets manipulated (“granted” back) to land developers in a complex mathematical scheme—leaving us to wonder, who picks up the final cost? Johnson says it’s a positive because developers get back their tax dollars… “not someone else’s.” But if they don’t ultimately pay the taxes, who does?
The Smithfield streetscape improvement was a $3 million utility project with a $310,000 NCDOT “Enhancement Grant.” The Buffalo Creek “Greenway” cost state taxpayers $1 million in grant money. A total of $4.5 million of the public’s money was spent to revitalize downtown Smithfield during the past 5 years.
Mr. Johnson stayed for questions and in his energetic “cheerleader” role tried to sell the Wallace town council on the idea of a similar project. It all sounded exciting and hopeful for an improved downtown—whatever that means. We didn’t learn whether or not the majority of Wallace citizens need, or even want, downtown improvements or, if so, what they would be. Still, after a quick pre-meeting tour of the town, Johnson, who admitted that he had never been there before, had lots of ideas.
Pied Pipers playing the revitalization tune have led many astray. In this case, the council will have to establish a nonprofit bureaucratic front to get public grant money; they must tax their citizens in a “service district”; they will need money from other taxing jurisdictions; they’ll have to set up a regulated historic district. Johnson also suggests a visitors bureau and, of course, the no-political risk “occupancy tax” to lay their project costs on hapless travelers.
Should they decide that revitalization is necessary, the Wallace town council should ask themselves: Can we accomplish downtown economic improvements with private resources without subsidies using money confiscated from others? The “stakeholders” should be those property owners and residents willing to invest their time, talents and personal wealth in making a better place; rather than expect other uninterested citizens to forcibly share their wealth to support the local interests.
In my opinion this is a moral dilemma for all elected officials. Should they use their power and influence to take funds from a larger body of citizens who have no connection or interest in their visions and distribute it to further the local interests?
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