Knowledge, humor, history, and oratory join as engaged crowd confronts Blight Decree
COLUMBIA, 2/24/12  (Op Ed) -- From Mizzou department chairs to prominent attorneys, working class heroes to citizen advocates, more than 80 people gathered Wednesday evening to hear organized, eloquent seminars on the City of Columbia's most bizarre policy move in decades:  a city-wide Blight Decree designed to secure business tax incentives through a so-called "Enterprise Zone" that includes large parts of Boone County, far from city jurisdiction.
The Spring 2012 Mizzou Alumni Magazine illustrates the dilemma residents and businesses face.  "Columbia's qualities would make it quite a catch on any matchmaking website," reads an article called Home Sweet CoMo.  "Smart, charming, athletic, artistic, hardworking." 
Oh -- and also blighted.   "Do I really want my city formally presenting a lie to my state?" asked presenter Amir Ziv, a builder in the central city.  "What does that say about my city, my neighbors?  Even the City Council admits that it's just a lie to get tax incentives." 
I heard comment after comment from people I know -- and people I've never met -- about how well-organized, well-executed, professional, learned, educational, heartfelt, and diverse the meeting was;  and how great the venue at Parkade Center looked, with professional presentation systems, Art League art on the walls, an easy-park location -- and not a penny in taxpayer incentives.   
Little "b" blight?
Four sharp, well-dressed moderators (Pat Fowler, Deanna Walkenbach, Alison Martin, Tyree Byndom) led seminars and a nearly 2-hour audience question/answer session.   
What is the impact on decades of home improvements, community relations building, crime reduction, and all the other citizen activities that make Columbia's neighborhood associations so important?  wondered Fowler, an attorney who also directs the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association. 
What will happen to real estate values in the blighted "Enterprise Zone," which winds through nearly 60% of the city?  asked real estate agent Brent Gardner.   Take two identical houses across the street.  One is in the blighted zone, one is not.   Which house would I want to sell? Gardner asked.  What happens when the guy across the street points over there and says 'that house is blighted, but mine isn't.'  Which one would I want to buy?  "I think I know the answer." 
"I'm one of many Columbians who don't want to live in a blighted area," Mayor Bob McDavid said at the Feb. 6 Council meeting.  Calling the term a "semantic euphemism," he tried fruitlessly to change it.  
But McDavid's attempt to water down the Blight Decree's strident language had Gardner scratching his head -- and delivering some side-splitting humor.   "Is it like, small b blight?" he asked.  "Is that different from big B Blight?" 
What about title insurance?  How easy will that be to get with a "blight cloud" over the title?   Gardner didn't know.  What about real estate disclosures?  Could realtors be sued if buyers don't disclose their home is in the blighted zone?  Audience members wondered aloud. 
The evils that men do
Fiery oratory about eminent domain abuse followed.  "Blight Decrees are evil.  They open the door to a whole lot of mischief," said Missouri property rights expert Bruce Hillis, a retired developer.   Despite all the happy talk about economic development, "Missouri is one of the most abusive states in the nation when it comes to using blight as a means to condemn property through eminent domain," Hillis noted. 
A 2009 Missouri Law Review article by the esteemed appellate court justice Harold Lowenstein backs Hillis' claim.  "Blight has become the primary vehicle by which municipalities and private developers can redistribute property," Lowenstein writes.  "Any protections from eminent domain abuse must stem from a redefinition of blight and an opportunity for property owners to obtain meaningful review of blight declarations."
Keep Columbia Free director Mark Flakne also worried about eminent domain, especially given City Hall's 2008-09 move to take private land around Bengals Grill for a new State Historical Society Museum; and a Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority that swept away most of Columbia's black business community during the 1960s.   For his concerns, "I've been called a 'reactionary'," Flakne said. 

Columbia resident Verna Harris-Laboy shook her head on news blight decree proponents are ignoring its ugly racial history in Columbia. 
"The fight is on, and I intend to get people mobilized," she said. 
Bad data
Reasoned passion about policy implications followed.   The Enterprise Zone law allows businesses to challenge regulations they deem onerous, former City Councilman Karl Skala noted.   Which regulations might get scrapped? he asked.  The constant drain on tax dollars will have to be made up somewhere, Dan Goldstein said.  "That means you and I," he told the audience.   
And all that talk from REDI about manufacturing jobs fleeing the area?   Columbia has never had more than a statistically zero percent share of nationwide manufacturing.   Plus, the census tract data REDI is using to justify the Blight Decree is thirteen years and one census ago too old, demographics expert Tracy Greever-Rice pointed out. 
Finally, in that one night, event host CiViC -- Citizens Invested and Involved in Columbia -- raised $2,055.00, mostly for Sunshine Law requests City Hall has made onerously expensive.   With future donations, the group later hopes to support candidates after it files necessary paperwork with the Missouri Ethics Commission. 
In a striking indication of the divide between citizens and government on this issue, even in this election year, not one elected official attended.   Not one School Board member; not one City Council person; not one County Commissioner.   The only candidate I saw was 2nd Ward hopeful Michael Trapp.  
Makes you wonder who they all think they represent.   
[Editorial disclosure:  This writer and his wife Alison helped organize and host the event and donated $500.  Until the group finds a permanent treasurer, Alison will serve as interim treasurer, a role she has held with large non-profits.]