Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gardening in the Shadow of Construction Cranes

State Farm Groundbreaking
Groundbreaking is not Gardening

It's like pulling teeth to get the Richardson City Council just to permit farmers markets, but the city is getting into "economic gardening" with no hesitation at all. Richardson plans to "launch a new economic development initiative to help revenue-generating technology startups grow even more quickly." Maybe farmers markets would have been shown some love if the special use permit application had called them "Garden iMarkets."

After the jump, just what is economic gardening? Spoiler alert: it's not turning a shovelful of dirt in the shadow of construction cranes.

According to The Dallas Morning News, Richardson's "economic gardening" program targets "second-stage companies with between 10 and 100 employees, and they have revenue between $1 million to $50 million." Bill Sproull, president and CEO of the Richardson Economic Development Partnership, "characterized the program as Fortune 200-type consulting that few companies could afford."

I could characterize it as picking winners and losers -- in this case technology startups are the picked winners, not farmers. I thought picking winners and losers was frowned on by conservatives. Or I could characterize it as corporate welfare -- for small businesses, not State Farms and Raytheons, but corporate welfare nonetheless. I thought that was frowned on by liberals. Left and right should both want to know more about this before tossing city money at it, right? So what's this program got going for it that both sides can back?

The idea behind "economic gardening" is that economic development is better promoted by supporting a community's existing small companies rather than by luring large companies to relocate with a deal-making strategy. That sounds plausible and maybe the REDP believes it to be true, but Richardson shows no signs of backing off its strategy of luring the big boys with financial incentives. Instead, it's just adding "economic gardening" to the mix. All the efforts as a whole start looking expensive. That might explain why Richardson had to devote a half cent of the property tax rate to economic development in the latest budget to pay for all the economic development initiatives. Maybe the city council should spend a little less time conjuring up dangers of farmers markets and a little more time studying economic development strategies and learning what works best.