Government has no place in economic development 

Signs of the Times

I once worked for a state agency. What I remember most is the work that didn't happen. My immediate supervisor seemed to equate "work" with making a lot of noise; she would move around giant cardboard boxes and stacks of paper with great vigor, and it was very loud, but I'm pretty convinced nothing was getting done. Another employee tended to her "online pet" more or less the entire working day. Still another sometimes smelled like alcohol and napped under her desk.

I don't relay this to demean government workers. If we have to have government, we have to have government employees to carry out its functions, and many of those employees do their jobs with competence and skill. But the temptation toward laziness, pointless busywork, and gross inefficiency is intrinsic to government. No one's money is on the line, it's almost impossible to get fired, and endlessly postponing deadlines never seems to bother anyone.

Which is why it's generally a terrible idea to put government in charge of things that it doesn't have to be in charge of. Defense, yes. Roads, yeah sure. Law enforcement, yes. Tourism marketing, no. Determining fair prices for health insurance, absolutely not. Mail delivery ... you get it.

Another thing government agencies shouldn't be put in charge of — although very few Republicans and no Democrats seem to have a problem with it — is investing large amounts of money in the private economy. I'm thinking of the nebulous field of "economic development." Why on earth would anyone think government officials are better equipped to understand the dynamics and potential trends of economic growth better than anyone else? Leave aside the question of fairness — government officials deciding which companies should get a break and which shouldn't — and think merely about the issue of competence. Why would you trust a politician to know which industries and companies are likely to expand and create wealth?

Seriously, think about your average city council member. Would you give him or her $1,000 to invest in an unnamed company? I'm guessing no. And yet you do exactly that in the form of property and sales taxes every year.

All of this came to mind when a friend sent me a story published last month by Hilton Head's Island Packet. This story — "Beaufort Commerce Park's Outdated Sign Attracts Scorn Instead of Tenants" — hilariously illustrates why public officials should never be allowed to "develop" anything, especially the economy.

Two years ago, the City of Beaufort purchased a 209-acre tract of land with the intention of creating a commerce park. The price: $1.85 million. This was intended to be an industrial park to which city officials could attract outside companies, thus creating jobs and investment in the Beaufort area.

That's the theory, anyway. But as of mid-October, the land was still a wilderness, and signs announcing the project directed you to a disconnected phone number and a website written in Japanese.

Asked about the site, the mayor and city manager can only bicker with each other about why the signs are still up. "The city manager has been asked many times to change that, and he hasn't," the mayor told the Island Packet. The city manager, for his part, explained to the paper that he had removed the main sign, but maybe not all the little ones: "The ones back in there," he says, "I just hadn't thought about those."

The city manager also said he "intends to speak with [the] public works director," and "the sign project will likely be tackled this winter." Why does it take so long to change or take down a few signs? According to the mayor, it's because drainage and flooding issues are more important. Meanwhile, the city manager thinks the Lowcountry Economic Development, the regional economic development nonprofit from which the city bought the property, may bear some responsibility for the signs as well.

Halfway through the article you're ready to scream: Guys, who cares about the stupid signs. You just used $1.85 million to buy a piece of land, apparently, for no reason.

The story goes on to explain how the Lowcountry Economic Alliance, the group that sold the land to the city, used to be called the Lowcountry Economic Network. That group owned the land some years ago, but the land went into foreclosure and the Network declared bankruptcy. Then the city purchased the land at foreclosure and hired, more or less, the same organization to manage it.

So here's the upshot of the story: The citizens of Beaufort borrowed $1.85 million in the name of "economic development" so that city officials could erect signs erroneously directing people to a Japanese website and then squabble about who should take them down. Assuming the city ever gets around to clearing the land, I wonder what company would be dumb enough to move its premises into this "commerce park."


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