Monday, July 18, 2011

So What is 'Economic Development'?

Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer took issue with columns written by me and Tod Robberson of the Dallas Morning News. The columns appeared in the July 10 edition of TDMN. Schutze's column misses the mark by conveniently leaving out a number of pretty important details, confusing time lines, projects and failing to check out impact. It is interesting, though. I do suggest that you read what Tod and I wrote fully before you render judgement.

Equally as interesting are some of the comments mentioned in the chat line after Schutze's column. Particularly this one:

"... the cornerstones of my city council campaign was that we should do more for South Dallas (district 7) than tout housing projects. We needs jobs out here, and we need retail, but the retail won't come until people have good jobs near their homes, and the retailers can put together a working proforma. Otherwise nothing changes. Housing does NOT = economic development!"

The comment was by a reader identifying him/herself as 'cp'. I don't know who 'cp' is, but I don't follow 'cp's' logic. 

I guess it depends on what you want to call 'economic development'.

 If by 'economic development' you mean goods and services that follow consumers, I would imagine that would be determined by what type of consumers you are talking about. Housing that is characterized as 'low income' or 'affordable' housing you might be right. But, again, that is debatable. 

The myth about low income and working class neighborhoods is that the people who live there have little or no disposable income. Purportedly objective 'data' is used to prove, for instance, that such communities cannot support grocery stores or retail. This has always been a curious argument to me. As I mentioned in a previous post, Paul Quinn College in South Oak Cliff (southern Dallas) is located in an area where there are nearly 4500 single family homes, as well as multi-family housing. There is a new elementary school being built nearly two miles south of the PQ and within 5 or six blocks of the new school being built is a subdivision being built. The area has a mixed income population. Nearly every house has a car in its driveway or garage. All of the people in those homes eat. They all wear clothes. They all have furniture. Yet the closest grocery store is six miles away. Most of the residents in the area drive as far away as Lancaster or DeSoto to buy groceries, or as far away as Cedar Hill, TX to buy clothes, electronics, etc. 

When locals buy into the myth, it compounds the problem of economic development, because what it actually means is that there really is never anything that you can really do other than gentrify an area that will bring 'economic development' to an area. 

I more affluent areas retail actual does follow housing: grocery stores, shopping strips and malls, fast food restaurants and electronic stores start breaking ground long before the first home buyer moves in. True, a number of businesses move in afterwards, but there are many that start along with housing construction. 

Secondly, it also depends what you want to discount as economic development. Houses don't just spring out of the ground. People build houses and they get paid for doing so. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, roofers, are all skilled laborers who build houses - that's not economic development?! Houses have to be marketed and sold - that's not economic development?! The people who move into those houses, whether the single family homes worked for by those of us who provided leadership in the '90's or those being built now, have incomes. They pay mortgages. They pay utilities. They pay taxes on the homes they buy. That's not economic development?! They will represent a different type of market: they will need a dry cleaners. They will need retailers. They will need shoes and clothes. Some smart business owners will recognize a shift in the neighborhood and locate in the area. That's not 'economic development'?

The problem is that people who argue from this point most often don't believe anything will happen because it doesn't happen immediately. So the criticism of the effort is based on the fact that housing doesn't transform a neighborhood overnight. Of course the most logical response is, 'So a department store does?' 

Those of us who fought for $425,000 in mortgage subsidy awarded in 1997 heard the same thing. In 2004 when I left the church to come to CitySquare (then Central Dallas Ministries), there were people who said, 'Nothing's changed'. What they didn't know was that the plans for the Bexar Street renovation had been in the works for a couple of years. I knew it was coming. And now what is seen is a phase one of a three part renovation plan for the entire area. The Ideal Neighborhood had been in decline for nearly 50 years before the first home was built in 1998. Now the focused resources that we all knew it would take to turn the area around are being applied and we see the results. And guess what? No one who laid a brick, buried a telephone line or put up drywall, did it for free. They all got paid...that's not 'economic development'?!

What are the one's who are still complaining about the lack of 'economic development' doing?

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