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News Story
Updated: 02/14/2013 08:00:24AM

Bartow’s development incentives make better sense

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Bartow’s development incentives make better sense.

Over in Tampa, citizens — particularly citizens who own small businesses — got all riled up over a proposal to spend $6.25 million in tax money to subsidize the construction of a Bass Pro Shops megastore in the Brandon area.

They drew little consolation from the fact that the original proposal was $15 million, and was reduced first to $8.25 million, then to “only” $6.25 million.

At issue is the murky principle of concurrency, the concept that before a major development can take place, roads and other infrastructure must be in place.

Practically everybody thinks that is a good idea ... as long as somebody else pays for it.

It’s not quite as simple as the county writing a check to the franchise or to the developer of the retail complex which it would anchor.

But the facts, simplified for easier understanding, are these:

• If the development is to be built, at least $6.25 million in highway improvements must be made.

• Without the $6.25 million in highway construction, the store will not be built.

• And without the development, the $6.25 million in improvements are not needed. (The road project is not even in the county’s long-range plan.)

So opponents who say the expenditure would be made to subsidize development are right on the money.

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Over in Pinellas County, baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays are insisting that the county allow them out of a multi-year contract under which tax funds were used to build a stadium for the team.

Major League Baseball now says it was built in the wrong place. Whose fault that is may be subject to debate, but presumably somebody noticed the location as it was being built. It was not fabricated in a mobile home factory and moved in overnight.

Bottom line: millions of taxpayer dollars were spent to build a stadium in which millionaire team owners pay players millions of dollars a year to play baseball, and now the owners want out of their end of the deal: to play baseball in it.

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One might ask why local governments entertain the idea of spending millions of dollars in tax funds to build improvements for the benefit of multi-million-dollar enterprises, be they national retailers or sports franchises.

And the answer appears to be “because everybody else is doing it.”

Parents are familiar with that argument from their children, and most of them don’t buy it.

We believe stewards of public funds should follow their example.

It is doubly absurd that small business owners, who never got a dime in tax money when they put their life’s savings into a small enterprise and may not be able to withstand competition from the megastores, are paying the very taxes used for such incentives.

———

There are better approaches.

One of the simplest is for local governments to become proactive in assisting new businesses — large or small — in navigating the labyrinth of permits and approvals required by government ... to remove obstacles to development.

Assisting customers and potential customers is the way the private sector works, and taxpayers are owed the same courtesy from the public sector.

Another approach, used successfully in Bartow for years, is to use Community Redevelopment Agency funds to provide assistance and incentives, primarily to small retailers, the type of business that is the lifeblood of small-town Main Street, USA.

Several approaches have been used over the years.

One is facade grants to help existing enterprises as well as new businesses spruce up the appearance of their stores. Another program that proved successful offered start-up assistance over a limited time to help new businesses become established.

Shoppes on Wilson is a program that has helped several small entrepreneurs fill a row of vacant stores on Wilson Avenue by offering low rents initially.

In each case, recipients of assistance were required to meet certain criteria, such as hours of operation.

To the best of our recollection, not a single business helped through this approach has put an established enterprise out of business.

The programs of the CRA are an example of how success breeds success. Successful businesses bring about higher property tax revenues, which, under the CRA model, are plowed back into further improvements.

Bartow’s approach has generated public support and little controversy. It helps those who need help, not those who threaten to take their business elsewhere if they are not given the keys to the public treasury.

Bartow’s development incentives, in our opinion, are vastly better than throwing millions of dollars at millionaires.


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