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Shreveport, Bossier City need to heed pro-growth agenda

From the looks of a summary of a recent report issued by the Urban Land Institute evaluating Shreveport and Bossier City, regarding the cities’ economic development it seems to make the right diagnosis, and in general identifies the correct cures.

ULI has a long history of providing advisory panels to areas for this purpose. In fact, its present highest profile supplicant is just south of here – the Bring New Orleans Back commission. Not that at all times can it provide the best advisors (one on the panel here, former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy, after a good start eventually succumbed to union and pro-tax pressure to help drive that city into financial receivership) or the best advice (one specific suggestion for here is to mimic Shreveport’s “Fair Share” city contracting program that goes to great lengths to disproportionately steer dollars on the basis of societal “disadvantage” which, like practically all other such programs, is ineffective and invites corruption much less discriminates against those business owners who presumably are not “disadvantaged”).

Still, the report does identify a major condition holding back the area’s economic development – parochialism. Both cities’ governments suffer from a “big fish/small pond” syndrome where more emphasis is placed upon using government policy to boost the power and prestige of those with power and their allies, perhaps more out of feelings of inferiority, than any realistic or coordinated strategy that can produce genuine and sustained economic growth.

This has led to the very wrong “Field of Dreams” theory of economic development pursued by both cities – build and development will come. In Shreveport, whose leaders feel slighted that the world seems to have passed them by, huge monuments arise or are refurbished, with others still being built, neither of which can ever hope to pay for themselves directly or indirectly, designed to get people to come to the city for short intervals to throw some money around. Meanwhile, as the city’s debt approaches a billion dollars, its infrastructure – on which government should spend its money instead of paying sports teams and developers or building convention centers and hotels – crumbles.

At least there is some principled dissent to this nonsense from a minority of political elites in Shreveport. Across the river, like lemmings marching to the sea, almost no politicians or their hangers-on buck the orthodoxy. Bossier City, whose leaders carry a chip on their shoulders because they think they get overshadowed by Shreveport, have latched onto the silly nouveau riche notion that building things better than Shreveport is the basis on which to launch an entire economic development boom, never fathoming that development comes from creating wealth, not from making it easier to turn what exists over by building a palace in which people can gather or by paying for a parking garage for venues where you sell rather than create.

The study says the two of them, as well as other area governments, should work together. That in and of itself qualifies almost as revolutionary given the cities’ leaders wariness of each other historically, but it also makes an even more radical proposal – regulate the process not by building stuff and by giving away taxpayer resources to specific targets, but by creating an environment where economic entities can keep more of what they create.

What if, for example, Bossier City hadn’t blown $78 million in cash on a money-losing arena and garage gift to a private developer? What if it instead had slashed sales and/or property taxes that could have set off a residential/commercial building boom and enticed business relocation and formation? (In the process, as the report suggested, revitalizing Old Bossier as a place for these new residential and commercial enterprises?) And continues to keep these taxes low to nonexistent courtesy of gambling proceeds?

What if, for example, Shreveport hadn’t blown $178 million in debt on a convention center and attached hotel? What if it instead spent that money repairing its water and sewerage system and on helping Bossier City build a pedestrian walkway paralleling the Long-Allen Bridge (as the report joins me in advocating), or put up its share with Bossier City for another two lanes for the Jimmie Davis Bridge, or paying for tax incentives to revitalize Ledbetter Heights and to encourage downtown residential development (still more report suggestions)?

This is real economic development, where government creates the environment for it to occur mainly by staying out of the way (and pockets) of entrepreneurs – not the big-spending, big government approach typically practiced in this metropolitan area. Maybe as a result of this report this time local politicians finally will understand this. If they had previously, the report probably never would have been commissioned.

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