Volusia Politics: Smarter than the average bear

I originally posted this essay in September 2016 in response to Canadian developer Heron Group’s plan to build a luxury apartment complex in Midtown – in exchange for some $15-million in tax-funded ‘incentives’.  

Kudos to the City of Daytona Beach for standing firm and opposing this blatant corporate ripoff:

Whenever you travel to forested areas – or even in some suburban settings – you find signs that wildlife officials have posted warning, “Don’t Feed the Bears.”

When bears range beyond their increasingly limited habitat and begin foraging for food outside their normal diet – household trash, dog food, etc. – it not only increases the chances of negative interactions with humans, but also dulls their natural instincts and makes them vulnerable to harm when they lose the skill and drive to fend for themselves.

Biologists tell us that whenever we attempt to treat wild animals like house pets – to make their lives easier by “helping” them – we upset the natural balance and foster artificial habits that can be dangerous, both for the bear, and the person feeding them.

It also encourages other bears to come around looking for the same “free” food handouts.

They go from being apex predators to fat, lethargic Yogi Bear-types who have figured out a convenient way to avoid doing what is necessary to thrive and dominate in their natural environment.

The same can be said of private corporations seeking increasingly lucrative “economic development” incentives in Volusia County.

Whenever I hear of yet another “great idea” I try to view it from various perspectives.  I find that when you contemplate issues critically, like a good chess player, you often find that there are as many negative outcomes as there are positives.

I also speak to smart people and get their take.  The insight and informed opinions of others is critical.

It’s called strategic thinking, and it allows you to reason through tough problems and develop sound solutions through the debate of competing ideas.

This process is rarely, if ever, used in government.

That usually means city and county officials will invariably – almost instinctively – ignore the public interest and consider the most improbable course of action possible in any given situation – always viewed through the lens of what our influential political insiders want or need.

But one things for sure – they don’t need or want our input.  No one cares what you think.

It’s just one reason why every board of trustees or governmental advisory committee in the region is populated by the same people – or at least by those controlled by the same people.  It’s bad for business when the peasants get involved – just shut up and pay for it.

I was reminded of this when the Heron Development Group, a Canadian company whose market research apparently tells them that building a luxury apartment complex in the heart of Daytona Beach’s Midtown – a challenged neighborhood that has suffered from blight, crime, poverty and a general lack of hope for many, many years – is a great idea.

I was curious whether or not Heron’s site development folks actually visited the area, which on certain nights can take on the appearance of a war zone – gangs, shootings, drugs, apathy and chronic victimization.  I mean, did they speak to anyone who actually lives there?

Then, we learned the rest of the story.

Initial plans called for the Heron Group to build a 220-unit upscale complex on South Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard with apartments priced in the $20,000+ per year range.

Unfortunately, in addition to the $1,700 average monthly rent, the development’s finance plan also called for a $15 million cash infusion from the citizens of Daytona Beach.  Including a $3.6 million construction grant – with a promise of $613,000 up front to cover permitting expenses and the purchase of additional property.

Wow.

According to City Commissioner Rob Gilliland, Heron’s request represents “the largest incentive package ever for a project in Daytona Beach.”

As the back-and-forth continued, the Heron Group finally settled on a whittled down tax abatement scheme worth $3.6 million over time.

Whether or not the project ever comes out of the ground is anyone’s guess.

In my view, Daytona’s core deserves new development – in fact, revitalization is the only thing that will ultimately change the cycle of blight and economic depression that has paralyzed the area for decades.  The residents deserve modern amenities, convenient retail outlets, casual restaurants, access to neighborhood healthcare providers, and affordable housing options that go beyond Section 8 “projects” and subsidized housing.

The City of Daytona Beach can help that process by using tax dollars for effective code enforcement and increased police/fire protection, streamlining residential improvement permitting, supporting increased home-ownership, facilitating neighborhood clean-up projects, setting performance metrics for those receiving redevelopment funds, ensuring adequate public amenities and infrastructure improvement projects that improve the feel of the area, build an identity, and foster community pride.

Is Midtown currently the best location for the highest priced luxury apartment complex in the City of Daytona Beach?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that regardless of what is ultimately built, it could very well be the catalyst for positive change.  It shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand.

Let’s get to the net-net:

From my perspective, the Heron Group’s audacious initial demand for $15 million in taxpayer dollars to pay for expenses most developers assume as the cost of doing business is clearly indicative of all that’s wrong with our current economic development incentives.

It’s also a dire warning of what’s to come, because it exposes how our area is perceived.

Given our regions history of financially supporting speculative developers, private universities, retail outlets, and various “business incubators” – along with Forbes-listed billionaires – why wouldn’t Volusia County be on the radar of every CEO seeking a corporate welfare check?

When you consider the tens of millions in tax dollars that have been diverted to private industry in Volusia County – then search in vain for the public gain in core areas, such as East International Speedway Boulevard, Midtown, the “E-Zone,” Main Street, etc., etc. – one begins to ask the natural question, “Where is our return on investment?”

When you factor in the cash infusions, on-going property tax abatement, tax increment financing, infrastructure improvements, and innumerable other public incentives, one can see how this artificial “feeding” of certain corporate interests can alter the natural balance of the regional marketplace.

Where are the jobs and improved quality of life they repeatedly promised would result from this perverted use of our tax dollars?

Why do we continue to do the same thing over and over while expecting different results, when the evidence clearly demonstrates that these incentives have neutral or minor fiscal impacts in the community?

Over a decade ago, a seminal study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association cast serious and demonstrable doubt on the integration of financial incentives in local economic development plans:

“It seems to us that there is a need for a radical transformation of policy ideas on how we achieve local economic growth and how we get people working. The standard justifications given for incentive policy by state and local officials, politicians, and many academics are, at best, poorly supported by the evidence.”

 If so, why is shoveling good money after bad still the very foundation of Volusia’s economic development efforts?

And most of all – Qui Bono?  Who ultimately benefits?

 I believe we deserve answers to these questions from our elected and appointed officials.

Trust me.  These speculative developers and corporate greedheads will continue to pour into Volusia County like Genghis Khan’s hordes.  Blood is in the water, and everyone wants to guzzle from the public tit while the big money flows.

Get used to it – and more important – know your role.

Your job is to feed the machine.

Nothing more, nothing less.

 

 

 

One thought on “Volusia Politics: Smarter than the average bear

  1. ‘Economic Development Initiatives’ is just a bucket term for all the tax money & manpower gov’t gives businesses to help them navigate through & around all the restrictions & bureaucracies that same gov’t created. Completely stupid!

    Like

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