Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Greensboro Economic Development Model

Having lived in Greensboro, North Carolina for longer than most I've heard the words, Greensboro's economic development, tossed about a lot more than most but the meaning of the words may not be exactly what you think they are. As a matter of fact: when Greensboro's developer driven "leaders" speak of Greensboro's economic development it is nothing like what the average Greensboro citizen would think economic development to mean.

For Greensboro's working class, economic development is long term jobs that last a lifetime and are here when we retire and our grandchildren enter the work force. Think Cone Mills and Vicks Chemical Company. For you and I, economic development means jobs in small businesses with local companies owned by local folks who dream of making it big someday and leaving behind vast endowments to be given to the people of Greensboro. Think Joe Bryan or the Richardson Foundation.

For Greensboro's current mayor, Robbie Perkins, Jim Melvin, head of the Bryan Foundation and developers like Roy Carroll, Greensboro's economic development takes on a whole different meaning. The last thing those guys want or need is another Cone Mills or Vicks Chemical Company that springs up in Greensboro and lasts for over 100 years. Why is that? Because in their lines of work there is little profit in a property that doesn't get bulldozed, rebuilt and resold every decade or two. Faster if possible. For banksters, developers, realtors and contractors, their own economic development requires that things constantly roll over, change hands, are torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.

Don't believe me? Talk to any of them about historic preservation. They detest it.

The problem with Greensboro's economic development model is that it isn't sustainable over the long term and is susceptible to even the slightest downturns in the economy. Much less the bursting of a housing bubble. Liberals know it, conservatives know it, everyone knows it and yet those at the top only give the problems lip service while continuing their same business as usual practices. There are in fact three ways in which Greensboro's economic development model is failing us again and again.

Growth Driven By Urban Sprawl

Greensboro sets slap dab in one of the longest corridors of urban sprawl in the world today. From Raleigh, North Carolina through Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, High Point, Lexington, Salisbury, Charlotte, Gastonia, Shelby, Spartnsburg, South Carolina, Greenville, Anderson, all the way to Atlanta, Georgia and a few hundred towns in-between a single urban mass is building that in a few short decades will be the most gridlocked area in the entire United States of America. Yeah, I know when you drive down I-85 it appears to look pretty open but that's because unlike in Northern states, Southern departments of transportation were for the most part mindful enough to design in buffer zones that can later be converted to 12 lane Interstates when the need arises.

This is actually one of Mayor Perkins' and Roy Carroll's favorite ways of achieving their vision of Greensboro's economic growth. Robbie goes around promoting ideas that on the surface sound like the successful Research Triangle Park build 50 years ago between Raleigh and Durham but he fails to mention that RTP was built on donated land with State tax dollars. Have you heard any rumblings from Raleigh that the State is planning to pick up the tab for Roy Carroll's water and sewer extensions? Me neither. Hey Roy, do you plan to donate that land before or after the water and sewer is installed.

And did I mention that despite all the talk of RTP, Robbie and Roy's project is looking a lot more like the thus far failed Global Trans Park or that other nearby cities and counties with land values that are half of Guilford county are years ahead of us on building simular projects?

Why Robbie Perkins hasn't even managed to sell off the A&T University Farm and he's already talking about running water and sewer lines 10 miles east and west of the Greensboro City Limits. What? You didn't know about plans to trade the A&T Farm for an undisclosed property somewhere halfway across the state? Don't believe me? Talk to James G. Ryan, Ph.D. Dean at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering. It's amazing what the goats on McConnell Road will tell you if you'll just stop and talk for a while. Who knew there was Internet on the farm? A few fresh organic veggies and a little rubbing between the ears and they're your friends for life. And those goats are really worried about how well they'll be received by those uppity professors who get shipped across town from UNCG. They don't think they'll do well working with Professor Andrew Brod as he is scared of getting his hands dirty and goats sometimes leave a mess.

And the next time Robbie mentions the City of Greensboro getting into the commercial real estate business... Please remind him about the Bessemer Shopping Center and the fact that not only does my Greensboro neighborhood not have a grocery story, but that he has yet to sell even one unit in the shopping center that wasn't already filled. (The only thing in the shopping center is a dollar store.) As a matter of fact: While I like the new free standing library, in reality the City created more empty space they've yet to sell when they built the library.

Growth Driven By Urban Decay

Lesser players like Sandra Anderson-Grote and Jim Keys tend to choose this model. Go into a neighborhood littered with empty houses and build a new subdivision, sometimes with government funding. Problem is, like so many things, the lesser players get mostly the scraps are are the most likely to take the financial hits in a down economy. Cases in point: Sandra Anderson Grote is in bankruptcy and even Jim Keys is underwater in his own home in the subdivision he built.

It's bad business to build new developments in areas filled with empty houses. It's not economically sound. It's not environmentally sound. It creates waste, drives down property values in existing neighborhoods, increases crime and stretches thin our city budget by creating more properties to govern with less money to do so. I can't say in the case of Keys but Anderson-Grote got government money to build her developments in these areas and the City of Greensboro praised her for doing so. Said she was helping people. A better way to help people would have been to help them into the existing empty houses but she probably didn't know how to get taxpayer dollars to do that so we let the older houses rot and continue to build anew. And just so you know, my house is older than most of the older houses I'm writing about. Some are only 20-30 years old. Now a lot of those people she "helped" are themselves, underwater, just like Councilman Keys. If that's Greensboro's idea of helping people, no thanks.

Growth Driven by Downtown Speculation

Here we have the favorite of downtown speculator, Uncle Milton Kern. Uncle Milton is very proud of the fact that he bought downtown when nobody else was buying downtown. Many even say he saved downtown. Well guess what? Buying what no one else is buying is what speculators do. Buy when the markets are down in the hopes of selling when the markets go back up. There's nothing wrong with that but like so many modern day speculators and men who are used to spending someone else's money, Milton Kern feels entitled to make a profit even in a down market so he works tirelessly to get the taxpayers to invest in downtown so that his own investments go up in value. Problem is, for Uncle Milton, his investments are going up in value but like most of downtown Greensboro, nobody is buying and along with Milton's, shall we say, sporty, lifestyle, there are huge property taxes on downtown properties.

By the way, have you heard that while commercial properties worldwide have fallen in value, downtown Greensboro's commercial properties magically went up in value? I can't explain it, perhaps someone from the county tax office can. Regardless, I'm sure Milton is sweating bullets over his upcoming tax bill.

Problem is, Milton Kern didn't save downtown Greensboro. As a matter of fact, like speculators in every market, no matter what the commodity, the long term effects of speculation always hurts the product and the people in the end. Case in point: In downtown Raleigh where the speculators feared to rush in, property values dropped and high tech, high paying employers like Red Hat and Citrix set up operations without the need for middlemen like Milton Kern. Had Milton Kern not bought in downtown Greensboro we might have gotten our own Red Hat or Citrix. Morons, the lot of them.

You see, it's not that I don't respect authority...