|City Hall vs. Ithaca October 1998
They used to say, "What's good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A." Years later we find that General Motors has sent tens of thousands of American jobs overseas; that they specialized in gas guzzlers which increased our dependence on Middle East oil and polluted our air; that they've contaminated America with carcinogenic toxic dumps; that they combined with Standard Oil and Firestone Tire to buy and destroy the U.S. urban trolley system (Chicago federal grand jury, 1949), committing the U.S. to a transport mode that has killed more than 3,000,000 Americans.
Here in Ithaca, Mayor Cohen and City Hall's chief developer Thys VanCort have been trying to convince social service agencies that 'What's good for City Hall is good for Ithaca.' But although several agencies depend on City revenue, many realize that City Hall hunts sales tax & property tax from any source, regardless of damage to the community.
The quick and dirty way to expand property & sales tax is to install wide highways to move consumers, then welcome big box retailers on acres of parking lots.
However, this style of development is also a quick way to increase tax rates, and to ruin a potentially great city. This article describes why conventional development hurts, and how we can fund our needs constructively.
Conventional Development Destabilizes the Job Base
Flint, Michigan, the hometown of General Motors, has learned that putting most jobs into few companies can cripple a city. When General Motors shut factories and moved 30,000 jobs away, bankruptcy increased, as did foreclosure, divorce, murder and burglary.
Back in Ithaca, Woolworth's (among many examples) was popular and profitable, but a Big Apple boardroom recently ended 53 jobs. The fifteen smaller storefronts preceding Woolworth's on that block (including a hotel and grocery store) could today still be hiring Ithacans (and paying taxes), were there diverse ownership, plus a vacancy tax which reduces retail rents.
More diversified employment likewise allows us gradually to rely less on Cornell (which itself depends on shifting corporate and government spending), enabling us to pressure Cornell to pay their fair share. Most new jobs nationwide are being created by firms employing five or fewer. Such firms bring flexibility and creativity to the job market.
It has long been assumed that major employers are fundamental, to provide job security (though less now than ever), and higher wages (though they often depress wages), and benefits like medical insurance (now generally weaker than ever), but there are other ways to create safety nets. The Ithaca Health Fund, for example, has the capacity to provide full universal health coverage in a locally-managed nonprofit health system (www.ithacahealth). In general, the creation of nonprofit locally-controlled regional networks for food, fuel, and housing will allow us to rely less on outside capital and government grants, and more on one another. Greater local control of the economy expands democracy.
Conventional Development Raises Taxes
Some believe that if we had more Wal-Mart-style malls, taxes would go down. During the past 30 years the City's property tax base has increased at least 25%, annual City sales tax collection increased 39% (adjusted) during the past 15 years, while the City's population declined. But have taxes gone down? Has government gotten smaller?
No, we're on a bigger treadmill. That's because government must enlarge to manage the added costs of road, sewer, water, schools, fire and police protection and administration that conventional development carry. As well, when major retailers close, they not only dump workers, they leave empty big boxes which don't pay taxes. Remember the fifteen shops (and 14 homes) where Woolworth's used to be.
The Inlet Island Plan is the latest example. Staff would have taxpayers build two new parking garages and several parking lots there to lure vast commercial development, and thousands more cars daily, to the center of the Octopus. They are taking citizens for suckers again.
Conventional Development Depletes the Local Money Supply
Dollars spent at chain stores leave town overnight, direct to corporate headquarters. Dollars (and HOURS) spent with local businesses stay here longer, creating new jobs and helping us hire each other. Would more malls bring more money to the City? No, malls would just take sales from the smaller shops which employ more workers per $1,000,000 of sales.
Conventional Development Intensifies Racism
Our area's economy is already extensively racist. Major employers and retailers seldom hire African-Americans. One local employer of 215 had zero African-American employees, then received City approval for expansion. Another, with 52 employees and one African-American employee, co-sponsored a meeting here (1988) to convince African-Americans that area business expansion would benefit blacks. The City's Dept. of Public Works has 160 employees, just five of whom are black.
Marcia Fort, director of GIAC and co-founder of CARE says, "The population of color in this county is increasing, yet continues to have a difficult time getting jobs. Not because of ability, but because of institutional habits, even in the public sector. It's time for this 'enlightened' city to put its money where its mouth is."
Liberals assume we will always have a ruling class (themselves) and an underclass (others) who must be managed as 'clients,' for rehabilitation. Conservatives prefer to replace welfare (except corporate welfare) with prisons (rather than job training), which are even more costly than welfare.
This can be changed, starting by re-shaping the proposed Southwest Park development. HOUR Town has offered the following three resolutions to City Council, to strengthen racial justice, assure livable wages, and limit military manufacturing.
Resolution for Racial Justice in Hiring:
Whereas City of
Ithaca revenues derived from tax payments by all races of City
taxpayers would be used to construct and
Whereas the rate of employment among African-Americans in the Ithaca area is far lower than is warranted by their willingness and ability to work, and Whereas Ithaca area industrialists have hired far fewer African-Americans than the proportion of African-Americans among the general population and
Whereas such discrimination is injurious to the freedom and spirit of these citizens, and damaging to social harmony generally,
industrial or commercial occupants of the proposed Southwest Industrial
Park and of any extension of the Cherry Street Industrial Park shall be
required to provide records of their previous hirings by race, and this
information shall be published for 30 days of public consideration
before any contract between them and the City of Ithaca is signed.
Conventional Development Lowers Wages
When large businesses locate here which do not pay workers enough for basic living, they are asking that the public subsidize their employees by paying more for social services, courts and jails. To ensure that responsible businesses locate here, HOUR Town offers this...
Resolution for Livable Wages:
Whereas the wellbeing of the City and citizens of Ithaca, New York depends on the opportunity for each family to earn an income sufficient to at least purchase necessities, with least dependence on public assistance,
the City of Ithaca intends to permit commercial and industrial
development on 66 acres of Ithaca's Southwest Park owned by the
citizens of the City of Ithaca, using infrastructure installed by the
taxpayers of the City of
Therefore, commercial and industrial occupants of the proposed Southwest Park shall be required to pay their employees at least the livable wage for this City as defined by the most current Alternatives Federal Credit Union Livable Wage Study.
Conventional Development Aggravates Militarism
Few of us would prefer jobs making bombs that will kill women and children, who are the likeliest targets of modern war. But since there are profits and taxes here, City Hall has kept this door open too. They have resisted this...
Resolution to Restrict Manufacturing of Weapons of War:
Whereas the manufacture of military weapons have caused the deaths of millions of human beings, and
Whereas it has been the longstanding concern of many Ithaca area residents that our labor and land contribute to world peace instead of war,
Whereas City of Ithaca revenues derived from these taxpayers would be used to prepare and maintain part of the proposed Southwest Industrial Park, to be built on 66 acres belonging to all citizens of the City of Ithaca,
Therefore, industrial occupants of the proposed Southwest Industrial Park and of any extension of the Cherry Street Industrial Park shall be prohibited from participating in Department of Defense weapons contracts.
These resolutions were ignored by City Council when introduced at July's Council meeting. As Council member Susan Blumenthal replied at Council, "We don't tell businesses who they can hire, how much they will pay, or what they will sell." This is the voice of a Republican, though Blumenthal is officially a Democrat. And all council members-- nine "Democrats" and one Republican-- drifted along, except Diann Sams.
Marcia Fort says, "I'd like to see anyone explain why they're against these resolutions. Economic development is supposed to be for everyone. In this town it's not."
Council is apparently unaware that every corporation is chartered for public benefit (revokable by state legislatures), that the City of Ithaca exists foremost for the benefit of its residents, and that large corporations may locate here only after public discussion of the social, environmental and economic costs and benefits of their presence.
Many people have assumed that unless we welcome chain stores and industries here without conditions, then corporations will avoid Ithaca. That's the logic of globalization-- corporations set conditions and communities serve them. Certainly, chain stores with no purpose here but profit would stay away. But rather than assume the worst, we should realize that Ithaca already offers potential businesses so much (skilled laborers, cultural richness, with openness to new ideas, good schools, community cohesion, little street crime, great environmental beauty, etc) that we can both create and attract here outstanding businesses which fit better notions of progress.
What type progress might that be? Ithaca has the capacity to become one of the most beautiful and secure cities in the United States. Economic development can be encouraged which fits into basic community aims of strengthening local enterprise, low-cost home ownership, racial justice, friendly neighborhoods, clean air and water, safe streets, low crime.
Real progress could assure that the marketplace be more than giant stores. Markets are places where flesh-and-blood people meet to get to know and enjoy one another: They are places where we find real human satisfactions, rather than just buy stuff. Consider the social difference between visiting Wegmans, and visiting the Farmer's Market.
Why then is City Hall busy selling Ithaca to lower bidders? Follow the money. A larger city requires a larger City Hall, and larger staff with larger salaries. This feeds the culture of elites and their power. Flint, Michigan's city hall staff is nearly the same, after 30% loss of population. But, to be generous, among these reasons is that City Hall department heads are generally unaware of creative directions, and disinclined to take risks.
City Hall's foremost blockade to creative development, for example, has been staff's chief developer Thys VanCort. During the past 25 years he has managed his Development department as a real estate office, selling Ithaca to developers, while opposing environmentalists and neighborhood groups. VanCort is a charming and witty fellow, whose steady air of savoir faire (and powerful connections) sustains his influence. He has promoted here the conventions of urbanization which have made so many American cities into dumps of crime and noise. For 15 years he pushed for a new highway up West Hill, which even DOT came to admit would have caused great environmental damage. Then he favored the incompetent Octopus bridge plan A1, which has cut the Inlet Island in half, and already finds traffic backed up along Fulton Street during rush hours.
For years, historic preservationists had to work without his help. For example, the Strand Theatre was neglected and demolished, replaced by a parking lot, while an ARC grant to revive the theatre was shuffled under. Beautiful brick storefronts were pulled down and replaced by Center Ithaca. Clinton House nearly escaped wrecking, for parking.
His department was so eager for quick sales taxes that they scrambled to welcome Wegman's with property tax breaks, onto wetlands, without requiring an Environmental Impact Statement. Soon enough, Wegman's began sinking into the swamp, its rear wall cracking loose.
He has fought neighborhood organizations, to promote "densification" of the sort which damages neighborhood integrity, while opposing expansion of parks.He has even done this in the name of resisting suburbanization, which his pet highways would have aggravated. Gross money-losing parking ramps were installed, while VanCort opposed citizen initiatives for trollies and bike lanes.
The Farmer's Market got no support. Says James Cummins of Littletree Orchards, "VanCort does lip service, but when we were pushed by City Hall to relocate he wasn't helpful. He opposed our plan to create easy traffic access from the current Market site. He just laughed; he wasn't interested. Politicians come and go; VanCort remains." The Community Gardens was likewise evicted, from fertile land, sent to a former dump, cut in half for a now-vacant industrial park, and promised facilities such as free water that are not provided. His disdain for citizens, whom he has referred to as "sunflower seeds," is chronic. Most recently, when dismissing reasonable concerns about looming Year 2000 computer disruptions of basic supplies, our Chief Planner has said "Why ask me? I'm no techie." VanCort drives straight, even when the road curves.
Mayor Cohen, to his credit, sought to reduce VanCort's position to part-time-- a rare courageous public challenge. Cohen also better understands small business and nonprofit needs, has favored installation of trollies, favored municipalization of NYSEG, and has helped pioneer Ithaca HOURS and the Ithaca Health Fund, among other new options.
But, like every mayor before him, he assumes that serious economic development originates with big money. Every big box franchise along Elmira Road widens holes in the Commons, and accelerates loss of money from the local economy. Yet this is considered "good" for City Hall.
You have the power to change this:
What might a local Green platform include?
Greens have traditionally promoted ecology, non-violence, grassroots democracy, and social & economic justice. The Green Party of Ithaca could function as the electoral arm of grassroots nonprofits. Here are some suggested policy shifts which do more than "maintain" needy people. These give all of us power together:
Economic Development: City Hall could lead an import replacement program, to maximize local purchases. Retaining money locally means there's more money to be spent here which means more local jobs can be created. Conjunct to this would be a City-provided warehouse for recycling goods & components.
Health: City provides building for a nonprofit dental clinic. With funds from the Ithaca Health Fund, members could get free annual dental check-ups and cleanings.
Food: Fruits & nuts & berries should be planted in public parks. When offered funding to install a "Food Park," the Shade Tree Advisory Commission said that "fruit trees do not belong in cities." But these emphatically do, and are a key to sustainable cities and food security.
Natural gas- and landfill gas-powered greenhousing in Southwest Park can grow vast winter supplies.
Housing: Co-ops and land trusts can remove units from the speculative market. Experimental permits can be issued for straw bale and other energy-efficient low-cost housing.
Transport: Install bikeways and facilitate trollies. Ithaca is strangling on cars which slow emergency vehicles, drain dollars from the local economy (roughly 65% of City's budget subsidizes cars directly or indirectly), pollute our air and water, and damage public health.
Require that parking lot paving be porous, to reduce toxic storm runoff into the lake.
Governance: Establish proportional representation locally to end the winner-take-all "Democratic" party majority.
Finally, maintain a genuine planning department with dynamic leadership which respects citizen initiatives, welcomes new ideas and takes sensible risks.
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Glover is founder of Citizen Planners of Los Angeles (1983). He is author of "Where Does Ithaca's Food Come From" (1987) and "Ithaca Power" (Ithaca's fuel supply, 1988), and holds a degree in City Management.