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THE REDO AT REDI: Blight opponents deserve to share credit for City Hall's new entrepreneurship focus

REDI director saw the light , but only after Blight

COLUMBIA, Mo 6/25/14 (Analysis) -- News of Regional Economic Development (REDI) director Mike Brooks' pending retirement suggests his was a strong and consistent voice for entrepreneurship and startup development in Columbia.

Brooks "drew attention for his focus on nurturing entrepreneurship," the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.  "I hope the heart I put into entrepreneurial business becomes a foundation going forward," Brooks said.

Brooks may have "put heart" into entrepreneurial business development, but like a trip to the Wizard of Oz, public pressure -- starting with a story in this publication -- gave him that heart. 

After years of lobbying for budget-busting big-business tax incentives -- most notably IBM and Blight/EEZ -- REDI staff shifted its focus to small startups in 2013.   A taxpayer-funded combination of business lobby and city department, the organization barely knew the meaning of "startup enterprise" before the Blight bungle.  

To take sole credit now for promoting entrepreneurship is not fair to the many dissenting voices who pressured REDI and its backers into the switch. 

Just two years ago, Brooks sat in the hot seat before angry constituents and disappointed Columbia City Council members, apologizing for his role as cheerleader-in-chief -- alongside then-REDI chairman Dave Griggs -- for Blight/EEZ, a corporate tax incentive program as far from entrepreneurship as business development gets.  

No one but Brooks spoke in favor of Blight/EEZ at a March 2012 meeting of CiViC, a citizens' group formed to combat the incentive.   "How many times do I have to apologize?" Brooks asked the audience, about REDI's handling of the volcanic issue.  

Blight/EEZ had one goal:  "recruit" a large, existing, out-of-area company to "create jobs" in Columbia via a  so-called Enhanced Enterprise Zone (EEZ).  The incentive provided property and sales tax breaks based on a state-mandated "blight declaration" covering nearly 60% of the city.  

A legal definition of blight appears in the February 2012 Council Resolution REDI championed to create the EEZ.    Blighted areas "constitute an economic or social liability or a menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare."  

By that definition, Columbia was no place for startups. 


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Brooks and Mayor Bob McDavid had their minds set on using EEZ to woo an old-line manufacturing firm that would put construction companies to work building a new plant.  Frequently defensive in public meetings, McDavid famously insisted Columbia had "too many" college educated scientists.  Only "out-of-touch elites" would oppose a blue-collar job creation program like EEZ, the Mayor said.   

At a Keep Columbia Free-sponsored forum, Brooks grew testy when audience members challenged him about REDI leaders' sweetheart deals from their big business lobbying efforts, and REDI's endorsement of Columbia Public Schools' tax levy increase.   Griggs -- who owns Dave Griggs' Flooring America -- received large flooring contracts from both the school district and Big Blue.   

"That's just the way economic development works," Brooks told the audience.  Over boos and guffaws, "I see we have some people who think they know how to do economic development," he fired back.

Trying to sell Blight/EEZ at a city-sponsored forum in March 2012, Brooks and fellow supporters stumbled over questions. 

Does EEZ include job training?   Answer:  Not specifically.   What, if any, environmental protections does the program guarantee?  None.   Why has this program been so quickly and haphazardly presented?   You'll have to ask your local officials, Missouri EEZ program director Carol Shoemaker said. 

This publication announced "A Better Way" in a May 2012 story, three months after REDI and the City Council blighted Columbia -- and part of Boone County -- to land an EEZ.   

"Columbia's leaders are wooing new business the wrong way," we wrote.   "For a better way, the non-profit Missouri Innovation Center (MIC) is helping lead the way.   Under former ABC Laboratories CEO Jake Halliday, MIC provides grant-writing assistance, patent attorneys, regulatory advice, business plan advice, and access to potential investors for entrepreneurs."

As Blight and big business incentives continued generating controversy, REDI and other city leaders clipped a page from Halliday's operating manual.  They acknowledged the importance of local colleges and universities to startup development; they offered office space to young companies; they hosted an all-day entrepreneurship conference called #BOOM.

But they assiduously avoided giving credit where it was due.   "I would like nothing better than to see the efforts we put together over the last five years be building blocks for even stronger entrepreneurship," Brooks told the Columbia Missourian for another story about his retirement. 

"We" includes the smart, dissenting voices that never get enough credit in Columbia, but continue to move this city in remarkable new directions that welcome innovation, progress, and positive change.

-- Mike Martin

 

 

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