Home > Economics, Politics > A modest proposal to control Civic Boosterism

A modest proposal to control Civic Boosterism

April 20, 2008

Civic Boosterism (CB) is a pernicious disease that afflicts city councils and mayors in mid-sized cities.  Call it “Chicago Envy” if you like.  In its early stages it’s fairly harmless or even beneficial; hanging potted plants from signposts downtown, commissioning artists to do murals on the side of buildings, and promoting rehabilitation of 1800’s buildings.

Late-stage CB is another matter.  The victims begin to suffer delusions of grandeur and they hear voices… of highly-paid consultants.  “Growth!” whispers the consultant.  “If you’re not growing, you’re dying!”  (Precisely the philosophy of a cancer cell, as Edward Abbey famously observed.)

“Oh no”, thinks the council person or mayor.  “I don’t want to die!  But the consultant says; “For just a medium-sized wad of taxpayer’s money, I can save you.  I can tell you how to grow…”

Our own city council of Normal, IL fell victim to this disorder some years ago when it decided to provide tax-relief subsidy for an “Outlet Mall” to the West of town.  It was going to be a tourist destination!  It was going to increase the tax base!  We should have done this years ago!

It’s almost completely empty, a vast white elephant wrapped around a gigantic empty parking lot in what used to be a productive corn field.  It reminds me of the “Monorail!” episode of The Simpsons

But apparently CB suppresses the learning centers of the brain.  Our twin city of Bloomington, IL decided they’d give end-stage CB a try and build a $30m arena.  Their consultants said it would revitalize the downtown!  It would turn $2m profit a year right from the start!  Why didn’t we do this years ago!?

Never mind that the arena in nearby Peoria took 20 years to turn its first profit, and as soon as it did the city sunk another $55m into it.

Bloomington voters smelled a rat and forced a referendum, in which they answered with a resounding “NO”.  But the mayor was determined to leave a legacy and the thing was built anyway, right downtown.

Today’s headline in the print edition of the Bloomington Pantagraph reads: Is it worth the price of admission? Long-term profitability of arena still unclear.  The headline pretty much sums up the article that follows.  Of course the profitability of the arena was never unclear to the voters.

OK, so here’s my modest proposal:  big-ticket civic projects must include punishment clauses for the consultants and the city council and mayor who voted for them if it doesn’t turn out like they said.  And by “punishment” I don’t mean censure.  I mean the consultant is publically flogged, and the local pols who voted for it must agree to march naked in a parade in which townspeople throw eggs and tomatos at them.

Hey, if you’re so damn sure this will work…

Of course, my own town of Normal is currently building a hotel and convention center right downtown.  The cost is murky – what’s a subsidy, what’s just urban repair, but it’s in the tens of millions of dollars.  That’s the next chapter in our story.

Categories: Economics, Politics
  1. April 20, 2008 at 09:32 | #1

    Sounds just like the disease we have around here, except ours is fueled with a bunch of hurricane recovery money along with the normal taxpayer dollars.

    we’ve had the paid consultants who came in after Hurricane Rita and showed us how we could turn our little city into a tourist destination that didn’t depend on casinos.  The civic cheerleaders roused enough voters to buy into the Plan, because this Plan is newer and better than the last two Plans that failed leaving downtown miserable and destitute.

    Color me skeptical.  Downtown is open air.  The mall is air conditioned.  Louisiana in August is 95 degrees and 90% humidity.  Where would YOU go to stroll and shop?


  2. April 20, 2008 at 09:46 | #2

    Well, I did my part as an outlander and went to a hockey game.  And I likely will do so again next visit.  But that’s just cuz I love hockey.  ;)

    On a serious note, I really like the biological reference.  It should remind us that all systems have their natural size, balance and metabolism.  I don’t know how, when or where “small is beautiful” was discarded, but it is a loss. 

    The very people who beat the constant growth drum most likely holiday in abroad in small, quaint villages.

  3. April 20, 2008 at 14:44 | #3

    I don’t know how, when or where “small is beautiful” was discarded, but it is a loss.

    “Small is beautiful” was discarded on 04 November, 1980.

  4. April 20, 2008 at 21:45 | #4

    I was always pretty skeptical of the Arena, but the hotel has a decent chance.

  5. April 20, 2008 at 22:26 | #5

    Thanks for the clarification. I believe I was napping that day.

  6. April 21, 2008 at 06:57 | #6

    Somehow, it seems, local governments, like their larger cousins, routinely forget that our country is supposed to be a democracy, and go ahead with projects the voters don’t want. I guess that the usual reason is the greasing of palms, one way or the other.

    I have no proof, of course, just common sense.

  7. james old guy
    April 21, 2008 at 10:35 | #7

    Thats why we have elections, so we can vote in a new batch of smarter people who know better than the people who elected them.

  8. April 21, 2008 at 11:07 | #8

    Thats why we have elections, so we can vote in a new batch of smarter people who know better than the people who elected them.

    Yes, but the problem is getting the majority of voters to care. When my father was thinking about running for congress he had an adviser helping to prep him for the issues in the district he was running. My father had some wonderful ideas, especially for education. Problem was, as the adviser put it, “People are stupid.” What I’m sure the adviser meant was that people in this district generally don’t care about that issue, and so they aren’t going to care about any solution, no matter how good.

    With everything my father was being prepped for the adviser kept saying to keep things shorter and more to the point. Politicians are pretty much trained to speak to people in sound bits, as if the voting population are all short attention span morons.

    I’m not really sure how you motivate someone to care about their future and the future of their country. Hopefully someone figures it out.

  9. April 21, 2008 at 19:17 | #9

    I think you just ignore the “experts” and treat people with respect.  You try to converse with them on there level, but never speak down.  And you never respond in kind to negative attack ads. 

    This is incredibly hard to do, and will result in failure for the first, oh, 20 times or so.  But when it succeeds, the results will be worth it.  This is why it is so important to have public financing of elections.  Without that as a first step, we will not get to civil electoral dialog.

  10. April 21, 2008 at 19:20 | #10

    Agreed. But this the mark of the… **GASP** SOCIALIST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  :bug:

  11. April 22, 2008 at 06:11 | #11

    Silly me.

  12. April 23, 2008 at 16:46 | #12

    Our Mayor wants to spend some ten plus million on planting trees and grass at the intersection of Highways 25 and 45. In a city in the middle of a desert. In a city that is warning about a possible drought. In a city that regularly puts water restrictions on everyone using water to feed their lawns and gardens. In a city that doesn’t have the money to repair the streets and hire police officer.

    Oh, yes, he also wants an arena downtown. In spite of the fact that a cannon fired down main street at night would only hit an occasional drunken university student.
    shudder, shudder.

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