Just get out of the way

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, May 1, 2013

One of the questions I get when I’m out and about is the following: “What does Troy need?” My self-interested answer is always the following: (1) Publix; (2) Target; and (3) a gourmet restaurant where one can take out-of-town guests (and wives) for a good, expensive meal and have a cocktail or two shaken up by a good, knowledgeable bartender.

At a more abstract level, Troy, like most cities, could use more freedom. We would benefit, in fact, if we took a page from the Houston, Texas, development experience and freed up our city to grow.

Houston is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. Despite the Great Recession of 2008, which has led to slower growth for most of the country’s big cities, Houston is growing and attracting hundreds of thousands of people at a rapid rate.

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Troy, of course, is not Houston. But we should aim to be like Houston in one important way: The drivers of Houston’s growth are cheap housing and its strong business reputation, which have their origins in freedom. The city’s zoning policies and regulations, for example, are simple: Developers can convert suburban homes in Houston’s core into high-density townhomes with minimal bureaucratic headaches. Investors can start a new business with ease, and there are no grandiose plans inhibiting businesses by over-designating one area as the business district, another as residential, another as entertainment, etc.

Too many cities have fallen into the trap of trying to plan every step of economic development. When I used to live in Macon, Ga., we suffered through a tried and failed model of “If you build museums, they will come.” We built several museums, but the people and jobs never came. Development cannot be planned by city officials; in fact, the most vital thing needed for cities is freedom from the very people trying to plan development.

I am no authority on Troy’s economic development, but I suspect there are many business impediments and ordinances standing in the way of more development. I also suspect some of the impediments blocking new businesses are being put up by people with an economic interest in blocking competition. If I’m right, we can take some comfort in knowing we’re not alone: In the Bay Area of California, for example, homeowners dig in and protest any new economic development for the sake of environmentalism; of course, blocking new housing benefits current homeowners when their home prices appreciate. For the sake of preservation, some property owners are using zoning policy to secure protections at a tremendous cost to consumers.

Businesses have even more resources and knowledge of how to use zoning and regulations to get what they want. Tribal burial grounds and environmental impact concerns are often an effective means of blocking new business. Concerns about congestion, public health, and a change in the traditional way of life also come up again and again as a rationale for protecting the status quo.

Whenever zoning policy is used as a means to protect an interest or used to hamper development because the city planner’s know best, it’s compromising freedom and development.

In a place like Troy, where everything needs to go right to attract investors, I often hear people say things like the following: “We’re doing everything we can, and businesses still aren’t coming.” I understand what people are saying. Taxes for businesses are low here, and we were just ranked Alabama’s 20th most business friendly city; yet, why aren’t we seeing a lot of new businesses moving in?

It’s probably because we have work to do in other areas, and zoning policy, complex ordinances, and unnecessary regulation are probably some of the big ones still holding Troy back. Is Troy a leader when it comes to benign and minimal zoning policy? Are we being cited as a model for other small, southern towns to replicate? I confess that I have no idea, but I haven’t heard of us being mentioned. If we aren’t, maybe we should take a page from Houston and other cities – big and small – and focus our energy on more liberal zoning laws, a coherent regulatory code, and an overall environment that the Targets, Publix stores, and even gourmet chefs find irresistible.

Scott Beaulier is Executive Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.