On our recent vacation, Scandinavia gave us something of a refresher course on what makes a city attractive and inviting. Great cities have good architecture, ample and well-tended public spaces, excellent education and transportation systems. They are safe, pedestrian-friendly and well-maintained. They offer a variety of public amenities?museums, parks, art galleries, markets?as well as thriving and abundant shops and cafes. Such cities draw tourists and their dollars, but they also draw businesses and residents.
My husband and I returned from vacation to find the papers full of letters debating whether the City should allow Simon & Associates to build on Capital Commons and subsidize a portion of the costs.
The administration’s desire to avoid losing several hundred workers from the city center is understandable. Beginning with Dick Lugar and Bill Hudnut, mayors have worked to increase the “critical mass” of downtown workers and residents whose presence is so necessary to continued vitality of the city’s core. Financial incentives to keep major businesses downtown can also pay dividends in increased tax base and ancillary development.
The problem is, when we must pay businesses to come or stay downtown, we are engaged in treating a symptom, rather than addressing the root problem. What is it that employers want but cannot get in our city? What can local government do to ensure that downtown—and the city overall—is a place businesses want to be? What civic improvements might make financial incentives unnecessary?
On our recent vacation, Scandinavia gave us something of a refresher course on what makes a city attractive and inviting. Great cities have good architecture, ample and well-tended public spaces, excellent education and transportation systems. They are safe, pedestrian-friendly and well-maintained. They offer a variety of public amenities—museums, parks, art galleries, markets—as well as thriving and abundant shops and cafes. Such cities draw tourists and their dollars, but they also draw businesses and residents.
Policymakers sometimes ignore the obvious. People don’t take vacations to see places where taxes are low—they visit vibrant and exciting cities. Companies targeted by our economic development efforts really aren’t that different. Sure, they look at costs. So do most of us as we plan our trips. But costs are only one piece of the package. A business looking to relocate also wants a ready supply of educated workers—the kind of people who tend to gravitate to vibrant urban areas. It needs good public transportation to get employees to the job, attractive neighborhoods for employees of varying income levels, and access to well-managed public services. Every state surrounding Indiana has higher business taxes than we do, and they regularly clean our clock in recruiting new employers, so there is clearly more to the decision than tax rates.
The City’s deal with Simon should be justified, of course, as all allocations of city land and money should be. But the real issue is figuring out how to make our city so attractive that such inducements become unnecessary. What is the relationship between really good public transportation, for example, and business recruitment? How important are parks and greenways to the quality of life we can offer, and what are we willing to pay for them? What kind of city do we want to be, and what are the tradeoffs necessary to get us there?
Wouldn’t our money be better spent building on our existing assets to make our city a magnet for people and businesses alike?