Monday, August 13, 2007
Once upon a time, a new commercial business opened by private initiative. But in many places in our more sophisticated age, a commercial venture necessitates a partnership between the business and government land use authorities, with troubling consequences.
Consider this anecdote from my old hometown, Silver Spring. Md., where the county government has been active in channeling money into the "redevelopment" of the once-"declining" old suburban downtown. The big news last year was that the semi-famous mid-sized music hall, "The Birchmere," of Alexandria, Va., was planning to open a second hall in Silver Spring, in a long-disused department store. As a devotee of the alt-country, bluegrass, and blues music that the Birchmere presents, as I was thrilled that the business had chosen my old hometown for its second music venue. How naïve I was. In places such as the rigidly controlled downtown Silver Spring, businesses don't decide to open commercial ventures; rather, businesses propose ventures to the government, which then decides whether to fund such a venture, or whether another type of business would be better for the government's vision for the economic development of the area.
In the case of the Birchmere, the original plan was that the county and state governments would pony up more than half of the multi-million cost of opening the music hall. (Who knew that it costs so much to take an old store, paint the interiors black, bring in a few chairs, and string up a sound system? Not me, apparently.) But the new reports are that the county government then decided that it wanted a much larger hall that could accommodate 2000 patrons, instead of the 700 or so that the Birchmere planned. The county government dreams, of course, of thousands of music-goers spending money in downtown Silver Spring each night. (Imagine 2000 patrons! Will Silver Spring become the new Times Square?) So the Birchmere "deal" (it really wasn't a business plan at all, but a joint venture between government and business) appears to be dead.
Here another subtext that I'd be willing to bet played some role. When government chooses which unique business to subsidize, it does so at the risk of annoying those businesses -- and customers -- that it doesn't subsidize. Paying for the Birchmere to open in Silver Spring would have pleased fans of alt-country, bluegrass, and blues -- who are predominantly middle-aged white folks (like me). The music hall wouldn't have been as popular, I can be sure, with people who didn't fit this demographic; as many downtown Silver Spring patrons are African American as are white (and a growing number are Latino and Asian immigrants). If I were a local politician, I wouldn't want to be in the position of trying to explain why I used taxpayer money to subsidize the musical tastes of alt-country-listening white professors.
It's a tangled web that local governments create when they steer and control business through land use planning. In fact, I can think of no other aspect of our society in which the "S" word seems so alive and kicking. While socialistic governmental policies are in retreat elsewhere in the world, many local governments are increasingly eager to have themselves, not just business, decide the sociology and economics of which businesses will be established. The music fan in me may be unhappy because of the loss of a chance to hear the blues, but the land use law critic in me fears even greater problems.