Gentrify This

by William Skink

I’ve been watching Orange is the New Black and a recent episode told the backstory of “Lolly”, a mentally ill inmate. After losing her job and becoming homeless, Lolly finds a little niche for herself, sleeping in a car and delivering coffee to people in the neighborhood. Then she sees the sign of an impending condo project which gentrifies the area she calls home, ultimately pushing her into an interaction with law enforcement that lands her in prison.

Though fiction, this story is rooted in very real trends. Yesterday Counterpunch had an article by Ron Jacobs, titled Gentrify It All! The article is about gentrification in Burlington, Vermont, but it could easily be about Missoula.  From the link:

Neoliberal capitalism is universal in its domination, if nothing else. From the fast-growing tent cities in Portland, Oregon to the hideaway camps in Burlington, Vermont; from the men living in boxes in Baltimore to the folks living next to garbage dumps in Manila, the results of property speculation motivated by a neoliberal dream of easy wealth are everywhere. One can go to any city in the capitalist world and see some edifice being built where there were once homes or small shops. After a little bit of research, one will usually discover this construction is some kind of so-called public-private venture which in reality will benefit the private investors in the equation considerably more than the public side. Indeed, the likely results for the public will be higher housing costs, less public space and more police (private and public) whose job is to regulate the public’s use of the private space.

This is the scenario currently playing out in the downtown area of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington. Although small in size when compared with the megalopolises of the world’s great cities, Burlington serves as the largest urban area in the mostly rural state. Its downtown has long been one of those public spaces where certain streets are actually privately managed, except for the policing. Rules for public speaking, tabling, busking and other activities are made by a management corporation that coordinates with the city administration on legal issues and enforcement. The arrangement represents a compromise reached between advocates for open public space and those who see the primary purpose of the downtown as one of generating profits for the businesses located there. Over the years, this has fomented debates about young people hanging out downtown, transients panhandling, musicians busking, and citizens engaging in grassroots political activity. In recent years, this has resulted in more restrictions on many of these activities, despite performances and protests opposing those restrictions.

Sound familiar? This is precisely why the Missoula Redevelopment Agency exists, to sweeten the pot for private investors who are looking for a return on their investment. That return isn’t in the form of some non-quantifiable public good, nope, it’s monetary return they are looking for, so unless you’re spending money in the newly revitalized space, your presence isn’t welcome. Here’s more from the article:

I mention this history to introduce the current battle being fought over this part of Burlington. In short, the pro-developer mayor, with most (if not all) of the City Council in his pocket, is attempting to foist a multimillion dollar bond on the city’s residents that would help a private developer renovate a shopping mall in the heart of downtown. This project would further limit public use of the downtown area by non-shoppers, enlarging the commercial space and creating condos unaffordable to most working people. The development corporation hoping to do this renovation, Devonwood Corporation, is represented in the Burlington venture by Donald Sinex, its founder and partner since 1997 (Bloomberg.com). Neither Sinex nor his corporation undertakes projects for the public interest. This project is an investment. Like any capitalist entity, Devonwood exists to make a profit. Of course, this does not mean it is against using public funds to make that profit. According to the developer and citizen’s committee formed to challenge this development project, the Coalition for a Livable City, the mechanism Devonwood hopes to use to get the public monies is called a TIF, which is an acronym for Tax Incremental Financing.

TIF funding is a favorite funding mechanism in Missoula as well. Here is an op-ed from the MRA board from a few years ago lauding TIF financing:

Tax increment financing is one of the best economic development tools available to Montana communities. The process of collecting TIF funds begins when a local government uses a public process to study a specific area to determine if it is in need of redevelopment. If the city council finds that the area is suited for redevelopment and designates it as an “urban renewal district,” the Montana Department of Revenue establishes a base value for the district. Then, for the limited life of the district, any taxes collected that exceed those of the base value of the district are TIF funds that are used for public purposes within the district. Missoula’s TIF program is administered by a small staff and a five-member volunteer board appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.

The City Council created the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and the first urban renewal district in 1978. That first district encompassed the core of the downtown, which had been ravaged by businesses moving away from the historic center of town. That district existed until 2005, and the cooperative effort to redevelop it was, by any measure, a resounding success. Between 1978 and 2005, more than $20 million of new public revenue — all of which was generated by the redevelopment of properties within the district — was reinvested in the downtown. These funds were used to build one of the best trail systems in the Northwest, riverfront parks, improved drainage, alleys, sidewalks, streets, upgraded utilities and improved fire protection. That $20 million investment of public dollars leveraged more than $200 million in other funding, much of which came from private development, and all of which was used to improve the downtown. The result is that Missoula has one of the most vibrant and successful downtowns in the region.

So downtown was “ravaged by businesses moving away” and the miracle of TIF funding over the decades has revitalized downtown, creating a vibrant economic center. But where were those businesses moving to decades ago? The Southgate mall? If so, that is not the case anymore. Malls are now in decline as urban center revive, so how about TIF money for the Lambros family so they don’t have to suffer the economic trend de-emphasizing walking malls. MRA to the rescue!

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency has approved nearly $7 million in Tax Increment Financing for Southgate Mall area development which will be used to help build a new movie theater and a road that will connect Brooks and Reserve streets through the mall parking lot.

This first phase of three will include demolition of existing buildings, construction of a state of the art theater and retail building, initial construction of vehicle and walking trails, and parking lot upgrades.

The public funds will will account for about 10% of the total cost of the first phase with the other $64 million coming from private investments.

Missoula Mayor John Engen urged the agency before the decision council to approve the funds, calling it an opportunity to do something that has never been done before in Missoula.

“So this first phase, I think, is relatively inexpensive,” Engen said. “I think what it does is meets a number of public needs, not the least of which is to get from Brooks Street to Reserve Street.”

It must be nice for wealthy developers to get public money to get better road access and a movie theater Missoula doesn’t need.

Mayor Engen has tapped MRA to be a crucial part of his new housing initiative because Engen claims he doesn’t want Missoula to become Boulder, Colorado, but I think it’s projects like this stupid mall theater and the monstrosity being proposed for the Riverfront Triangle that indicates what the Mayor’s priorities for Missoula actually are, and it’s not affordable housing.

The problem I see with all this development is this: in order for businesses to flourish they need customers, and in order to buy shit, customers need money in their pockets. Well, guess what, after the dynamics of neoliberalism hollowed out the manufacturing base of this country, replacing good-paying jobs with bartenders and baristas, the purchasing power of consumers (consumerism accounting for nearly 3/4 of America’s GDP) has been greatly diminished.

Desperate to preserve and expand the tax base, development in Missoula will continue going full steam ahead until the next economic cataclysm descends, which is just around the corner. When that happens we will see if there is any public benefit from the public investment we’ve been sold.

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About William Skink

I'm a poet and political cynic living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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3 Responses to Gentrify This

  1. interesting letter from Robert Brown, former executive director of the historical museum at Ft. Missoula, about development downtown, especially this part:

    As far as civic leadership and financial leadership are concerned, we certainly seem to have enough to take over Mountain Water Company, to help develop the Fox Theater complex, to help develop the Fort Missoula Regional Park (but not enough to maintain it), and to help the private, for-profit Southgate Mall in their new development. Yet we do not have enough leadership to preserve the most historic, iconic building in downtown Missoula?

    Is it a coincidence that after the library board voluntarily changed its mind, that they were suddenly offered an entire city block next to their current location and that they were given city and downtown support for a $30 million bond for a brand-new building? And isn’t it interesting that in the process they will be spending far more than it would have cost to restore the Merc? And, isn’t it interesting that they will get to tear down more historic buildings on that block in the process?

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  2. steve kelly says:

    If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, it’s probably a GSE (government sponsored enterprise). GSEs increase the availability of credit, and reduce the cost and risk of credit to pre-selected borrowing sectors. Regular folks need not apply. Freddy and Fannie are the prototype. Now we have GSEs dropping like pigeon shit 0n every sector of the economy. Real growth died in the late 1970’s. Now we have fake growth to keep the game going a little longer.

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  3. petetalbot says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the MRA, TIF and downtown revitalization. Having been in business downtown during the late 70s and early 80s, I can attest to its decline. Small businesses were abandoning it in droves and the Missoula Mercantile (later Bon Marche, later Macy’s) was about the only thing keeping it alive.

    Thank God for the MRA and TIF, otherwise we’d have a downtown like Rochester, NY. (if you’ve spent any time there, as I have, you’ll know what I’m talking about). I haven’t been there lately, but downtown Rochester was an armpit. All the businesses had moved out to the affluent suburbs. What was left were pawn shops, adult book stores and some skanky bars. That meant to do any shopping, you needed to get in your car and drive, drive, drive.

    I’m basically against TIFs for commercial areas that host national franchises and corporations, and have mixed feelings about public assistance for Southgate Mall. I hated the mall for decades after it nearly took out our downtown. Now, it seems rather quaint, compared to the WalMarts and Costcos and Targets. The mall used to be considered on the edge of town and now, it’s rather centrally located. The problem with not supporting it would be more sprawl further and further out. Been to Billings lately? It’s latest commercial development is halfway to Laurel, and except for some hip new places around Montana Ave and Broadway — brew pubs, some galleries, a Big Dipper Ice Cream and a Pita Pit — the downtown is pretty anemic.

    My point is, sometimes TIFs are good and I’m thankful for the MRA in its early years from keeping much of Missoula’s urban core from becoming blighted areas.

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