Saturday, July 17, 2010

Master Disaster 2: The Heavy Hand of Big Government . . .

Utica "peaked" during the 1950s with a population of over 100,000 and virtually all of the easily accessible land within its borders developed. Utica was the center of activity, and its people were relatively prosperous.  Today, after losing thousands of jobs and almost half its population we look upon Utica of that era with envy.

What made Utica-Past successful?   It was private enterprise . . . entrepreneurs who had ideas, found needs for those ideas to fill, and found places in Utica to turn those ideas into reality.  Private enterprise created many of our icons . . . like the Stanley Theater, the Munson-Williams-Proctor complex, Hotel Utica, and the Adirondack Bank Building. Private enterprise created most of Utica's cherished parks system - - - a gift from a loving family.    Even the Utica water system started out as a private company. 

Today, most of those icons are now on public assistance. What happened?

Perhaps it was an attitude inculcated in the generation raised during the Great Depression -- which also happened to be the first generation raised with mass media (radio). It was the "New Deal" era. People looked to the Government to solve all problems . . .

In the 1960s people got tired of the old and slow, and wanted new and fast . . . and people expected Government to make it happen.  How did that turn out?   Land was cleared for "Urban Renewal" and Arterial highways, taking people and businesses with it.   "Urban Renewal" turned out to be anything but. Some buildings were built at taxpayer expense in place of what was removed, but little was built by private enterprise -- and what was, was done on the cheap.  (Look at the cheap metal buildings on Columbia St. that went up in the Urban Renewal area. The old solid brick structures that were removed were far better.)  Arterial highways, instead of bringing people to Utica, took them away.  Most of the private activity that was taken for these projects left the city . . . forever.   Utica has been in decline ever since.

Later, in the 1980s, people felt that Government could cure social injustices and racial prejudices by closing neighborhood schools and busing school children across town to achieve a "racial-balance." . . . But society's ills existed more among the adults than the children, and Utica schools were already integrated by the junior and senior high school levels anyway, so what good did the busing accomplish?  While the good was questionable, the bad should have been obvious.  Schools lost their neighborhood context.  It became difficult for parents to participate in school activities. Classmates could no longer be playmates. Neighbors couldn't watch out for each others children when they were put on a cross-town bus and exchanged for strangers.  Networks of people important to the socialization of children became strained. Misbehavior became a problem.  Time that could have been spent in study or healthy play was wasted on school buses -- which disrupted city traffic and wasted other people's time. Before this happened, Utica schools were considered to be excellent.  Once the children were forced onto buses, some people felt that they might as well move to the suburbs where they could at least have more space and keep their children together with their friends.  The distinct advantages of Utica's neighborhood schools were lost forever in a failed social experiment.

Now Utica has a draft Master Plan, and hopes are high that it will lead to a turn around . . . but will it? Were the lessons from the past ever learned?  Here is a sampling of some recommendations that will give you the answer:
From the "Housing and Neighborhood Development" section:
The city will "create and adopt a mixed income housing model." All new housing developments will be required to include 20% "affordable" units.  "Affordable" housing units would be created in areas that are NOT Low to Moderate Income census tracts. A subsidized housing plan would also be instituted. (See p. 28).
To encourage more owner-occupied homes and increase compliance with codes,  Purchase-Rehab Loans and a 60% Grant – 40% Loan Program will be developed for current owner-occupied homeowners to help them remain in their current home.  (See p. 29).
Community Improvement Districts will be developed, apparently with some type of taxing authority to pay for "common" facilities, and an "Incentive/Penalty" program will be developed to reward (?) people for code compliance. (See p. 29).
A "mixed income model" may be a utopian goal . . . but isn't this just more heavy handed "social engineering" that is likely to produce results similar to forced busing?  Social engineering breeds resentment . . .

The idea that Utica needs "affordable housing" is idiotic. Utica's "affordable housing" is one of this region's few bright spots whenever the area is ranked among other parts of the country. It is always touted by the rose-colored glasses crowd. If any type of housing is in short supply within city limits, it is upscale housing.

Now what developer of upscale homes would put up with a "20% affordable" requirement? Developers usually look for a niche to fill.  The key question: would such a development even be marketable given human nature?  Undoubtedly, such forced-developments would have to be subsidized by the taxpayers.  What would that do to Utica's tax rate? And what would the tax rate do to Utica's attractiveness for new residents? ... or businesses?

The drafters of the Master Plan need to open their eyes and get in touch with reality. Plenty of people already are rehabbing their homes and bringing them into code compliance -- and perhaps creating "mixed income" neighborhoods in the process -- without an elaborate government handout program. ... The people happen to be Bosnian ... using skills learned in Europe ... but employing the good old-fashioned American Free Enterprise System to unleash their potential.  They are remaking the face of Utica.

People who need a Government loan/handout program to do what others are already doing are unmotivated, unlikely to produce anything of value, and are probably into projects just for the money.  The taxpayers do not need this burden . . . and a Government that insists on doing this may be suspected of simply using the handouts as a means of controlling a large block of people. 
The Draft Master Plan also proposes that Utica will promote Green Building & Home Rehabilitation in its neighborhoods by incorporating Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighborhood Development principles and provide "education and training" in the field. (See p. 30).
As laudable as "going green" is, shouldn't this be an individual choice? Those that want to "go green" will do it as they already have.  Since there are already state and federal incentives, why should Utica taxpayers take on promoting such a program?  The bottom line for Utica residents and businesses is money . . . affordability . . . sustainability in a FINANCIAL sense.  The city is already driving people away with its high costs.  Why would people come back to higher taxes for this?
To improve Downtown, the Master Plan proposes creation of a “Restaurant Row” that celebrates the diversity of the City’s ethnicity. (See p. 45)
Restaurant row? The entire city is already a smorgasbord of ethnic and gastronomic diversity, and its reputation is spreading by word of mouth beyond the region -- all the result of private enterprise If there is a niche in downtown for a "restaurant row" some enterprising soul will fill it.  The government has more important things to fill (fill potholes . . .  and keep us safe) than go into the restaurant promotion business.
To improve Downtown, the Master Plan also proposes creation of a public safety and visitor assistance program for downtown to build an atmosphere of safety, friendliness and goodwill; and develop a tourism marketing plan and a tourism-readiness training program for staff in tourism industries and downtown business owners. (See p. 45).
Aren't these things that the Chamber of Commerce (private industry) should be doing?  Oops . . . Utica's C of C is missing somewhere in the "Mohawk Valley."  Anyway, these things are NOT the responsibility of the taxpayer either.

The truly great things produced by society, those things that can transform a region for the good, are produced by private enterprise. Private enterprise thrives in an environment where there is maximum freedom.  In cities, because people are close together, there is always a potential for activities to conflict.  Master Plans address this when they provide a framework around which private enterprise can be organized - organizing activities so that they reinforce each other rather than detract from each otherMaster Plans will produce positive results when they ensure that private money, public money, and city service networks are used efficiently and provide maximum benefit in an environment of maximum freedom.    

This Master Plan is a step backward.  It wastes public money . . . It gives away too much. It relies too much on Government action. It controls too much. It does little to leverage private enterprise. 

People risked their lives to come to Utica  . . . to be in a place where they could be free. . .  and in their freedom, Utica is being renewed. Let's not mess up the progress that has been made. 

Utica does not need a Master Plan that will turn it into the places that our new residents fled from. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Utica has a structural budget deficit. This drives up taxes for residents and businesses on an annual basis thus making the city inhospitable to both. Until the money problem is addressed nothing else will matter. That would show true leadership which can't be bought off the shelf.