Should Flagstaff continue with its "amenity-based" strategy to attract new business and industry? Or, should it try a new strategy? If so, what?

The Virtual Editorials - E8 (June 26, 2005) - Dennis Foster

Introduction:  A visit to Flagstaff by "urban expert" Joel Kotkin prompted this topic.  At issue was whether cities that tried to build amenities - parks, opera houses, public art - were missing the boat on what it takes to attract new firms and a growing middle class.  Mr. Kotkin's view is that cities should be spending funds on infrastructure - roads and schools - to create a pleasant environment that will attract new businesses.

Virtual Editorial #8

     There is no more bizarre belief than that city planners can create the ideal future for Flagstaff.  Government should be used to create basic infrastructure, land use rules, and a simple zoning and regulating process.  Let people create their own community, based on voluntary actions, not coercion from the government.

     Using the city government to attract new businesses becomes a never-ending waste of taxpayer monies – whether it be for alien outhouses on Route 66, or tax breaks for new businesses.

     We cannot trust government to protect our liberties and freedoms.  Indeed, government works relentlessly to undermine our freedoms – raising the minimum wage, prohibiting smoking, banning supercenter stores, restraining landowners from cutting down trees, fining citizens for watering on the wrong day.

     This threat was worsened with the Supreme Court decision upholding the right of localities to seize private property, based only on the expectation that the city can earn more tax revenue from a change in private ownership.

     I shudder to imagine the city manager eyeing my home and thinking: Convention Center!  We’d be better off sending him to Hawaii, with his county counterparts, hoping they do go snorkeling instead of learning new tricks for how to better “govern” us.

Afterword:  Well, this one is loaded with tons of local references.  Just in case you missed them, they are:
1) Alien outhouses - the public art that stands along Route 66 across from Postal Blvd.  They aren't always described this way, but it is how I always think of them.
2) Minimum wage - some years ago, a city councilman, Rick Swanson, was promoting a higher minimum wage for Flagstaff.  If it wasn't so sad, it would be laughable.  Well, that proposal died a deserving death, and Swanson's term expired as well.  As an aside, he later started up a bookstore - I think in the downtown area.  It didn't succeed (as is true of most start ups).  I have wondered whether he employed anyone there at minimum wage, and whether he might have hired more if the wage rate were lower.  At least it would tell him something about jobs.
3) Prohibiting smoking - a ballot proposition banning smoking in restaurants passed some years ago.  Since then, the ban has been extended to bars, and, recently, to people standing in line outside a bar.
4) Banning supercenters - in the spring of 2005, Flagstaff voters overturned the City Council's decision to impose size limitations on retail stores.
5) Cutting down trees - the incident involves George Nackard's property, near Wal-Mart.  Nackard got a plea deal with the city, although I thought he had some trump card to play here.  That is, while he hired someone to make cuts in his trees, he didn't actually cut them down.  He let them die, and then was forced to remove them.  Still, the land use restraint here is untenable.
6) Watering - even though we don't face drought conditions this year, the City Council, in all its collective wisdom, decided to keep the water restrictions in place.  So, when it is a Tuesday in June, and I want to go hiking in the Grand Canyon all day, I have to think about the consequences on my lawn, because that is my watering day.
7) Convention center - this lame idea keeps getting kicked around.  Really, it is just another way for the city to waste money.  Still, the enormous costs have pretty much killed the idea of the city footing the bill, although there is a bit of support to encourage NAU to build one.  It makes you wonder whether anyone understands the moral issue here.
8) Hawaii - the county government was under some fire for shipping a bunch of staff to an annual conference in Hawaii, where they can pick up tips on good government practices.  Of course, the complaint assumes that these folks will just go to the beach and drink Mai Tai's all day.  Upon some reflection, maybe that's exactly what we want them to do!
     This issue was nicely timed, as the Supreme Court ruled that week, in Kelo v. City of New London, that private property could be taken, via eminent domain, and sold to another private owner, merely on the grounds that the new owner will develop the property and pay more taxes.  The reverberations on that decision will last a while.  If I had more space, I might have shoehorned in a discussion of Canyon Forest Village, which was an attempt to transfer public land to a private developer, to the obvious detriment of the commercial facilities in Tusayan and Williams and Flagstaff.  A lot of similarities here, and the attitude of government officials seem eerily the same.
     Finally, on the general issue of planning our way to utopia, I might suggest you visit Arcosanti.  I spent six weeks there, in a workshop, in 1980.  They have plenty of shortcomings, but it is an interesting idea on how a city may be constructed, especially if you let the marketplace develop different ideas in this way.

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