Industrial Lessons Learned, Are We Listening Yet?
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Submitted by: David Seal, Jefferson County Commissioner District #9
We have a pattern of behavior concerning industrial development in this county that seems to backfire nearly every time it is attempted, and for good reason. In the most recent case, the proposed Commerce Park in White Pine, disposed of nearly $45,000 of taxpayer money in a case where the development was ANNOUNCED by the Industrial Development Board BEFORE the affected community residents were consulted. Each time a development is announced before the affected community is consulted, the effort ends up with a little “war” over the location. Advice:when proposing development, always start by talking to the community of citizens in the path ofthe proposal. Never start with the politicians, city council, developers, would-be proponents, or those (other than citizens) that would stand to benefit. Otherwise, the project ends up with citizens believing they are being ambushed, disrespected, overlooked, and overrun. I have suggested a respectful citizen-centered, bottom-up approach several times within the past 3 years, mainly because of the failures, battles, and waste of taxpayer money that we so often see . (list below) The top-down ram-it-down-your-throat approach is failing.
Proper Citizen Activism
At the recent County Commission Meeting in which the Commerce Park proposal was soundly rejected, a citizen, speaking during the public comment portion of the agenda summarized the situation perfectly: “If you had checked with us [residents] first, we could have saved you a lot of work and taxpayer money”. Another citizen pointed out that current businesses are having trouble locating qualified workers, a clear indication of workforce problems, a condition usually considered by industry before relocating. Incidentally, the proposal was not rejected because of citizen objection. It was rejected, in my opinion, because the citizens correctly pointed out the financial folly of the proposal using solid data, indisputable arguments, and verifiable information. Like any group of citizens who feel that their community is threatened, they organized, conducted research, and responded with force to save their community.
For the most part, Jefferson County has missed the industrial boat. In a local 20 county area, 81 industrial parks covering 24,450 acres stands 40% empty. In this local region, within commute distance, more than 10,300 acres of vacant industrial property stands empty being advertised with tax incentives [corporate welfare] and other infrastructure incentives that Jefferson County can’t match and pay for, much less compete with. Most competing industrial parks were developed 30 to 40 years ago, giving those parks a decades head-start. Add to this problem, the fact that automation of modern factories is reducing the number of jobs. Like other failed proposals of the recent past, the Commerce Park proposal fell apart because the $15 million build-out cost estimate was proven to be based on flimsy estimates and wild financial assumptions, grossly underestimated according to some calculations. County Commission saw the financial risk, lack of evidence, overwhelming regional competition, no certainty of financial return, and heard no strategy for success. Of course the Commerce Park failed.
Every time “the war” is fought over proposed industrial development, the promoter always mentions a program initiated by the Chamber of Commerce a few years ago called “Building a Better Future,” reportedly a grass-roots effort by 2000 Jefferson County residents designing a better quality-of-life for Jefferson County through a set of common values and economic development ideas. I believe it was fabricated by a paid consultant to justify unpopular undertakings. I theorize this, not because of how it was invented, but because of the way it is used to justify development in the face of opposition; and a growing number of citizens across the county are joining me in this assessment as their neighborhoods are embattled by unpopular development proposals. I dispute that 2000 citizens of this county ever came to a consensus and designed a system to justify the type of industrialization proposals that we see on a regular basis. If I am wrong, bring the minutes of the meetings and 2000 names forward; I want to read the documents and contact some of the 2000 people.
On behalf of the citizens that I represent, I have made the following suggestions to the leadership of Jefferson County for the past 3 years. I am optimistic that, we as a county, can make progress by exercising a little logic and common courtesy.
- Treat all communities and citizens with respect.
- Meet with individuals and hold community meetings to discuss the type of economic development that would be accepted and viewed as appropriate for the community.
- Choose development that is appropriate for the community in which it is to be located.
- Set priorities on economic development and business recruitment that have the greatest potential for return-on-investment.
- Avoid large-scale high-risk projects when using taxpayer money.
- Diversify the type of business that is recruited.
- Recommend policies to County Commission and to the Industrial Development Board that will help accomplish business diversity, job security for citizens, and tax revenue for Jefferson County.
- Do not limit business recruitment to large-scale manufacturing. Consider retail, tourism, agri-tourism, agriculture, small business, and promote expansion of existing business when setting policy and undertaking economic development.
Jefferson County Commission, District 9