Enterprise Zone, blight designation rushed and ill-conceived, Anthony and Hoppe tell audience
COLUMBIA, 3/19/12  (Beat Byte) --  "I think we need to rescind this blight designation," 6th Ward Columbia City Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe told a 62-person audience at a Town Hall meeting Wednesday night. 
Hoppe's declaration was one of several surprise revelations about a so-called Enhanced Enterprise Zone (EEZ) and the blight designation Missouri law requires to establish it. 
The proposal was "rushed through" with little opportunity for either public or Council input, Mrs. Hoppe and 5th Ward Columbia City Councilwoman Helen Anthony said.  They were disappointed by what Mrs. Anthony termed "yet another example of putting the cart way before the horse."   Neither Council member realized the broad implications of the blight designation and expressed surprise at the public backlash. 
No one but REDI director Mike Brooks spoke in favor of the idea.   "How many times do I have to apologize?" Brooks asked the audience, about REDI's handling of the issue.   
Hosted by CiViC -- Citizens Involved and Invested in Columbia -- and emceed by Keep Columbia Free director Mark Flakne, the Parkade Center gathering featured a broad cross-section of interests and concerns.   Five panelists -- Hoppe; Anthony; Brooks; David Roland, a Missouri real estate law expert; and about 90 minutes later, Mayor Bob McDavid -- presented their sides of the debate, then took questions from the audience.
Brooks reared up when audience members challenged him about REDI leaders' sweetheart deals from lobbying efforts such as tax breaks for IBM or REDI's endorsement of Columbia Public Schools' tax levy increase.   "That's just the way economic development works," he told the audience, to boos and guffaws.  "I see we have some people who think they know how to do economic development," Brooks shot back. 
Audience members reminded panelists about a widening loss of trust between citizens and a local government increasingly beholden to special business interests.   The destructive effect past blight decrees and eminent domain abuse had on the black community -- which once included many prosperous downtown business owners -- stood out. 
Eminently clear about eminent domain, Roland emphasized that regardless the program -- TIF, EEZ, etc. -- a blight designation opens the possibility of abuse.   "It doesn't matter what this City Council promises," he explained.  "Even if this Council won't use a blight designation for the purpose of condemnation, a future Council certainly could." 
A Vanderbilt University Law School graduate who with his wife and fellow attorney, MU Law School graduate Jenifer Roland, operates the non-profit Freedom Center of Missouri, Roland discussed recent eminent domain abuse in Missouri, including a battle between a historic theatre owner and City Hall near St. Louis.  City officials declared the fully-restored theatre "blighted" to condemn it for a shopping center.   The owners won in trial court, claiming the blight decree made no sense.   But an appellate court overturned that decision. 
"Guess what's on that property today," Roland said, nodding when "shopping center" rose from the crowd.