The handling of Mother Bear Pizza’s efforts to build a new shopping center on West Third Street – a project that would have created construction jobs and jobs for the businesses that would locate there – shows that the current philosophy of city government needs to change. We are not being served by the top-down approach of micromanaging development and business. (See here and here for more.)
Because of delays in the approval process, Mother Bear’s abandoned the West Third location and instead will renovate the old Smokey Bones building next to Kohl’s. Other tenants had already backed out of the project because of foot-dragging by city government. While the new plan will re-open a long-dormant building, the opportunity for greater development has been lost.
The problem is the basic philosophy of city government, in the planning commission and the city council. Instead of deferring to the private property rights of developers, the city council and plan commission want to direct development of land owned by other people in a way that will benefit “the community.” (Whatever that means.) One plan commission member said he wants the city council to allow “greater plan commission discretion over a building’s design” – meaning even more micromanagement of business.
This top-down, central planning approach is not the way city government should operate. The city obviously does have some interest in directing development. For example, if a poorly-designed project will create a traffic hazard or put too much of a strain on overcrowded streets, the city has an interest in regulating the area. But the idea that even such things as building design should be dictated by the city is absurd.
It should also be pointed out that a large national chain – for example, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart or Starbucks – will have the corporate resources to tough it out against city government. A small business will not have that kind of leverage. So the city government that allegedly wants to see more local businesses and fewer chains is actually making it easier for chains to come in at the expense of a local business.
We have a vibrant business community, despite the efforts of city government, because the economic engine known as Indiana University helps overcome some of the obstacles created by city government. We can be even better if we jettison the top-down approach in favor of a bottom-up approach more friendly to economic development, local business, and the jobs those businesses hope to create.