I enjoy meeting with elected officials. I enjoy talking with anyone that cares about their town. Most council members I speak with are well-intentioned and became involved because they are passionate about their community. There are exceptions, but we can’t spend too much time worrying about exceptions, lest we get nothing done. As part of my work, and when visiting communities, I find it integral to meet with elected officials to discuss their challenges and understand from their perspective what the community is facing. I get a lot of questions from council members and even more from people running for council. I find this promising. Elected officials have more ability than anyone in a community to effect positive change. It’s not to say change can’t happen if officials aren’t on board, but it is significantly more difficult. You don’t have take a pole to go fishing, but it’s a helluva help.
Last week, I was meeting with members of a local city council to discuss the various issues affecting their community and I was reminded of the how critical it is to have their buy-in to the process of rebuilding the local economy. Often times, in the towns I work with, there is a disconnect between what the community wants and what council thinks people want. This lack of understanding leads to damaging consequences. Elected officials often times fall into the trap of believing people want more of what they already have. It’s this notion of confusing supply and demand, in assuming what you have IS what you want. I have mentioned this concept before- just because I don't HAVE a cabin on a lake, doesn't mean I don't WANT a cabin on a lake. I very much DO want a cabin on a lake, but I just don't HAVE one. Yet. This idea that a community wants more of what they already have is problematic and is simply not the case in terms of local economies. The people in the towns where I work have a lot of things they don't want and are missing a lot of things they do want. No one willingly eats at Applebee’s, they simply have no other choice.
My conversation with council was around their role in the process of rebuilding the local economy. Let me explain a bit more what that means. Every city used to have a local economy, every city going back to when Jesus invented cities. A local economy is an economy where the goods and services that are consumed in a community are largely produced in that same community. These are how are towns were all built and operated until the 1950’s. With the proliferation of the automobile and the ever expanding quest for convenience, we moved away from the local economy and instead opted for the sprawl economy. In the sprawl economy, the goods and services consumed locally are primarily produced outside of the community. This gap has had disastrous consequences for our country and thousands of smaller towns. As you can clearly imagine, the gap in where those goods are produced and consumed has lead to the depletion of a significant amount of resources for those towns. Bank branches, haircut chains, eyeglass stores, big boxes and their ilk all stalking at the edge of town are not stand alone vinyl monoliths, but instead these are the visible parts of a drain, a long drain pipe leading all they way back to their headquarters, in some other city.
These corporations constructed drains in your city because you have something they want. Dollars. To get your dollars, they will use your land and build the cheapest and ugliest shit they are allowed to get away with. They will lure away your youth with promises of a regular paycheck. They will price their goods artificially low so they can push out local ownership and thrive with no competition. If they come across a particularly desperate community, they will even get subsidies to carry out all of these dastardly deeds. Every publicly built suburban road is a corporate subsidy that is being used to drive money away from your town. They will stop at nothing to take everything they can. As this process drains a community, the “nicer” chains leave town when their goods are no longer affordable to most. That’s when the poverty vultures descend. They still do the same thing as the more reputable chains, but because they are a visible harbinger of decline, they are perceived as being more evil. They are in essence all the same. No outsider has any inherent interest in making your community a better place to live. Remember that. Say it to yourself in the mirror every day if you need to. The only people interested in improving your community are members of your community. We have to resist the sprawl economy and work to restore the local economy.
Back to city council. This is their role. They have to legislatively facilitate the process of moving from a sprawl economy back to the local economy and they have an outsized role to play. They helped usher in this era. Starting in the 60’s, most councils began passing legislation that helped bring about the sprawl economy. Council members, like the rest of us, thought that sprawl was our savior and when we all had an acre lot and two cars, we would be happy as cul-de-sac clams and the god awful inconvenience of strolling to the local store would be banished to our dark past. In facilitating the sprawl economy, local councils started passing pro-sprawl legislation.
Zoning ordinances geared towards big box development
Parking requirements that weren’t feasible downtown and discouraged investment
Signage ordinances that were geared towards vehicular traffic
Zoning that prohibited upper floor residential
Lot size requirements that favored suburban housing developments
The list goes on more than I intend to. These are just a few policies that helped facilitate the sprawl economy and hinder the local economy. This point is important and needs to be emphasized. In most cities, there are codified municipal ordinances that strongly favor national chains and make it very hard for communities to revitalize. These pro-sprawl policies keep people from investing locally. Along with aggressive road building and annexation, local governments have been very willing participants in this process. That being said, they are instrumental in undoing every single bit of it.
In moving back, we can move forward. My conversation with this particularly city council was around their removal of all of the policies that favored outsiders over locals and that in repealing all the sprawl legislation of the last half-century, they can begin the process of facilitating a healthy local economy. I explained that they are not going against the will of residents, but quite the opposite. The community wants nothing more than to have a healthy, vibrant downtown and a robust local business community and well maintained buildings and a walkable core and downtown housing and on and on. This is exactly what the community wants, council just has to help usher it in. We know people want it because they keep telling us they want it. Look where people travel, look at where people shop when they have options, where they dine when they have options. If people are leaving your community to go to a dense walkable commercial district, they want a dense walkable commercial district. We don’t need any additional information to make this conclusion.
Then came the big talk. The conversation about vacant and blighted property. Many council members are very leery of delving into any issues that might call into question property rights. Stop. Please, just stop. The only people that ever complain about property rights are the deadbeat owners that have no interest in maintaining their property. The property rights we need to be concerned with are of that of the highly vested property owner and the potential developer. Their property rights are being infringed upon when the adjacent building is a fire hazard, falling down and housing a colony of dingos. We think nothing of enforcing codes on a neighboring house that is falling apart, commercial property can and must be treated the same. In fact, the condition of downtown property has a much larger impact on a community as a whole and should be held to a higher standard. I explained to these council members that the community has their back on this issue. There are always a few loud voices in town that shout over the rest, but they can’t be allowed to drive the conversation. I ask the same questions in every community and I always get the same response, 95% of people I speak with want to see the city do something about poorly maintained property. Right now, in most cities, the 95% are being ignored while the 5% are holding the town back. Enforcing property codes is not a violation of property rights, its a protection of property rights and investment. Cities seeking to improve must raise their standards. There is simply no other way to improve.
Local city councils need to start this process now. They have to look at existing legislation and determine which policies favor out-of-town investment and encourage the sprawl economy. These policies need to be systematically removed from the books. In addition, council should begin to look at policy that makes it easier for locals to invest, while penalizing vacant and blighted property. Policies need passed that favor walkable businesses and densely built buildings and housing. Budgets need to reflect that traditional neighborhoods and residents are more of a priority that national chains. The market is demanding these things and investment will flow where it is guided. Council has a responsibility to help rebuild the local economy through its legislative authority. There is so much that can be done to help restore communities to their former health- to foster local ownership and investment, to realize well maintained and beautiful buildings, to restore the local business community, to help provide people with a renewed sense of civic pride and engagement. Council has an enormous part to play in helping to rebuild the local economy, and they just have to keep one principle in mind. Put community first and everything else will fall into place.
*Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog, if you found the information useful, I do hope you will consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues.
- Jeff Siegler