At the meeting of the Wichita City Council last week, several city council members gave their reasons for supporting the planning for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. It’s worthwhile to take a look at two members and their remarks.
“We’ve given the free market a chance in downtown,” Miller said. There’s a few things we can disagree with in this statement. First, the market downtown is not very “free.” There are TIF districts overlaying much of downtown, for example. These TIF districts are an example of government interventionism in the extreme, something quite different from free markets.
Besides this, Miller frames the decision incorrectly. To her, downtown redevelopment is something that must happen, and since people haven’t responded to this decree very well, that’s a failure of the market. But the correct decision point is when people and business decide to be downtown or somewhere else. That’s where we see free markets in action and the decisions people make. Because they make decisions other than what Miller wants them to make, that doesn’t mean that free markets have failed. Instead, people have simply made a decision other than what she believes is the correct decision.
She also said this: “Without incentives, the free market just doesn’t work.” To which I say: “Where there are incentives, markets are not free.” That’s government interventionism. It’s axiomatic.
Then, there’s this quote from Miller: “Just like the human body cannot succeed with rot at its core, neither can a city be healthy with rot at its core.” Variations on this nostrum are constantly repeated by government-subsidized downtown revitalization supporters. This analogy is meaningless. I’ve asked the city to supply evidence of this — something more authoritative than the mayor’s vision and dreams — and so far none has been supplied.
Regarding public and private investment in downtown Wichita: A document published earlier this year showed that public and private investment in downtown Wichita over the past decade is nearly even, or about a one to one ratio. Now Miller says: “I’ve heard the city manager talk about moving us toward a return more in the neighborhood of 15 to one, private contribution to public.”
So has something new been discovered in the last ten years that allows public-private partnerships to reap such fabulous rewards? It doesn’t seem likely.
Furthermore, if it is possible to achieve such impressive results from public investment, why is this our goal only now? Shouldn’t we have had this goal earlier? Is this an example of the incompetence of previous city councils, of which Mayor Brewer has been a member for many years?
Council member Lavonta Williams, in her remarks, said that we must have a plan, comparing the planning of downtown revitalization to planning her classes when she was a schoolteacher. (Click on Wichita downtown planning proposal: Lavonta Williams for video.)
“Without a plan, there is chaos,” she said, noting that some people think that the things we’ve done downtown may be chaotic. “Hopefully this bond will bring us all together. … Downtown is everybody’s community, but it’s not going to be if you don’t have everybody buying in to what’s going on.”
She urged citizens to attend meetings so that their comments are validated.
William’s analogy — downtown planning and running her classroom — is not meaningful. There’s simply no comparison between the two. One is a highly structured situation, while the other is a problem of immense complexity with very little structure. My post Planning downtown Wichita revitalization: an impossible task? summarizes some of the characteristics that make planning such a difficult task. Deluding ourselves that the task is as simple as Williams posits is a sure path to failure.
Then, I have some news for Williams: not everyone is going to buy in to these plans and the huge public subsidies that will accompany them. We’re not all going to come together on this. As council member Miller recognized in her remarks: “There’s a great variety of opinions on this subject.”