Councilman Carl Stokes’ effort to refocus the city’s economic development effort merits careful consideration. As the city recruits new businesses – as it must – the incentives it offers developers must pay off – in jobs, in tax receipts and in improvements to the human infrastructure: young people, older people and neighborhoods.
We should start the discussion with basic questions: What do we mean by economic development? Do we want enterprises with real and demonstrated commitment to employment and training? Or are we just looking for waterside glamour?
Don’t we want businesses that will come here with commitments to the community – companies that support community institutions? Some banks are doing this: supporting the Baltimore Symphony and the nurturing of young people.
We should be looking for partners in our effort to enrich people’s lives and opportunities. We need financial strength – but we also need corporations that see the value of civic involvement.
Are we in a position to make demands? How can we be sure that the tax benefits s we offer are doing more for us than filling blank spots in the horizon? Are the processes transparent? Do people understand there are safeguards against developers who don’t deliver? Councilman Stokes is asking the right questions.
Studies have shown more than once that incentives via tax breaks and grants don’t always produce the hoped-for results. The controversial Harbor Point tax breaks make the developer responsible for short falls: But are those guarantees clear to the taxpayer?
To expect the citizen to go along, the stakes and the safeguards must be clear. That hasn’t always been the case with Harbor Point.
It’s not easy often to get big investments in cities like Baltimore. Tax incentives have been a good tool. But City Hall needs a strong buy-in from the taxpayer. Transparency, clarity and clear purpose will help.