Reform needed for economic development-siting process

by Adam R. Snyder

Imagine a six-lane highway is planned to crisscross your community. Maybe your neighbor’s home will be destroyed, but your home will be spared — only to be left standing to listen to the wail of semis and SUVs whizzing by what used to be a quiet community park. The road has been in the works for months, maybe years, but it is only now, in the final stages, that you and your neighbors are privy to the plan.

How would you feel? What would you say? What would you do?

Nearly 40 years ago, so-called “not-in-my-backyard,” or NIMBY, advocates were faced with this very problem. With little money, little political power and desperately little time, they saved several historic neighborhoods from destruction. And today, these neighborhoods are the crown jewels of Birmingham.

The city planned a spur from the Red Mountain Expressway to eliminate “blighted houses” in the Highland Park and Forest Park neighborhoods and to connect commuters directly to the airport. Young families organized, vocally at times, to stop the destruction of their neighborhoods.

But they met opposition and were told they were holding up progress. They were reminded of the old adage “you can’t fight city hall.” But still, they fought on.

In the end, the road was never built. And a generation later, property values in these historic neighborhoods have grown exponentially, protecting a vibrant community. Very few could imagine a highway in place of these quintessential Birmingham neighborhoods and their historic residences.

Is this story of yesteryear really any different whether we’re talking about a highway, a railroad yard, a coal mine or a quarry in our communities today?

While the fundamental American right of citizens to organize and determine the fate of their community should never be demonized, the continual battle between community advocates and economic interests suggests practical reform of the development-siting process is needed.

Too often, there is a disconnect between the industries looking to locate in a community, the economic recruiters who are trying to lure them in, the elected officials responsible for the area and the citizens who will be impacted by the project. The citizens often see the secrecy of the economic recruitment process as underhanded and exclusionary. The industries, recruiters and, at times, the elected officials can see the citizens as NIMBYs who don’t appreciate the economic opportunity they are bringing the community. Late in the process at public meetings, economic interests try to win public support based on the merits of the project itself. However, at that point, many citizens oppose projects less on the merits and more on the fact there was a lack of openness in the process.

Citizens get angry. Industries and recruiters get defensive. And elected officials are caught in the middle of trying to appease their constituents as well as influential business interests. Communication breaks down, and distrust grows.

There’s got to be a better way.

Both the economic development and citizen interests must do a better job of working together with open communication in the economic recruitment process.

First of all, our communities should proactively determine “community criteria” — a vision of what we want our communities to be like now and in the future. Such an open effort should draw from all sectors of the community and be reflective of the diverse views of the citizens.

Second, from the criteria, our communities should develop economic-development plans that reflect our values and desires for the future. Citizen leaders and elected officials should work cooperatively with economic recruiters to lure companies and projects that reflect the communities’ visions.

Third, economic development interests should include citizen leaders early and openly in the recruitment process. Too often, distrust grows out of control because there was not inclusive communication in the beginning.

Fourth, while citizen groups should expect to be included in the economic-recruitment process, citizens and economic interests must work together in good faith throughout the process, which means open communication, compromise and consensus.

Finally, elected officials should serve as trusted, neutral parties who facilitate conversations among all the interests involved. Nothing erodes trust more than citizens thinking their elected officials are representing the economic interests at the exclusion of the people who put them into office.

Economic growth that is not rooted in the values of the community is corporate tyranny, just as a community blocking economic development projects for the sake of opposition is mob rule. When it comes to economic development, we need a more open process that includes more citizen leaders from the outset in order to build trust, avoid conflict and grow communities we all want to live, work and play in.

Only then will more communities and economic interests enjoy the success Forest Park and Highland Park have enjoyed — hopefully without the heartache.

Adam R. Snyder is the executive director of the Conservation Alabama Foundation.

E-mail: asnyder@conservationalabama.org

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