By Michael Gaffney, candidate for Worcester City Councilor at Large
Revitalizing Worcester’s downtowncontinues to be a topic of much discussion with little or no progress and many false starts. Despite the fact that the City has thrown significant resources and engaged in large scale development projects we have yet to see any lasting improvement. True progress is moving forward, not circling back around to follow the same dead-end path over and over again. As a city, we seem to engage in projects with an eye on the short-term accomplishment and a lack of focus on what we are seeking to achieve in the long-run. In order to make lasting change we need to ensure that we have a clearly articulated vision for what we are seeking to achieve, appropriate incentives for those who can aid us in achieving our goals, and an action plan to get us there.
You may be wondering about the all the development downtown has been promoted as a sign that the City is making true progress despite what our eyes are telling us. So how do we get millions of dollars downtown without any real progress? Well, let’s break down the elements of political math with an example: My next door neighbor and I decide to sell our houses and agree to buy each other’s home for $250,000.00 each. In practical terms, this means an even sum exchange, but with the magic of political math this was $500,000.00 in economic development. All that really happened was my neighbor and I exchanged locations, but it certainly sounds better when the sales prices are stacked upon one another.
An example of this in our city is the economic development downtown where Unum moved approximately 3,000 meters from the Chestnut Street area to the Worcester Common area. Quinsigamond College is moving from the old Worcester Common Fashion Outlet across the park to the Old Telegram and Gazette Building. The Telegram and Gazette moved from one side of the park to the other. This all adds up to millions in development according to the above political math, but in reality we just shuffled the deck.
The latest efforts to develop downtown are focused on increasing “foot traffic” by attracting college students to the area to stimulate business. To achieve this result the City Council seeks to move as much downtown real estate off the tax rolls and into the hands of the non-profit colleges to bring them into the heart of the City. So, while they are reducing the tax base by selling out to the non-profits, the Council spends millions to redesign the busing system to push services off Main Street into a hub located at Union Station. Clearly, moving the busing off Main Street has the inverse effect of increasing “foot traffic” downtown, so I leave it to the readers to determine why the City Council would take such action, but the alleged reason is to encourage business development.
The question is: what does business development mean to our City leaders? Apparently, the Midtown Mall with a tax value of $3.3 million must be knocked down because, as one councilor claimed, it is a “trash can”. With a 30% commercial tax rate, does the City Council really expect that the property owner will be rushing out to improve the property so that he can immediately see his tax dollars double? (see my prior article on commercial tax rates.) Instead of incentivizing improvement, our City Council attacks the owner and the businesses at the mall. When did it become the role of government to choose winners and losers in business? Here, it seems that our City Council has taken direct aim at the existing businesses downtown by cutting off their “foot traffic” and are now engaging in a relentless attack on them.
Let’s back up a bit to consider Union Station. As you may recall, it was supposed to be the “South Station of Worcester.” Now it is mainly empty with little foot traffic as the commuters simply approach from the old train stop rather than walking through. The City spent $21 million for a parking garage that even at full utilization could not be profitable and now want to raise fees. Simply put, if consumers wouldn’t park there for $2.00, they will be less inclined to park there for $4.00. Yet, since so much money and political clout was spent on the Union Station project, the City Council can’t give up. So, the intersection was redesigned from a rotary to a round-about where pedestrians risk their lives crossing, but no development resulted. So Greyhound was moved across town, but that didn’t increase foot traffic either. Now, the WRTA main hub is next to Union Station, but a recent article in the Boston papers shows that the desolation from the torn down buildings surrounding Worcester Common is less than appealing to foot traffic or development.
Our central planners that gave us the Union Station project are now touting the Theater District project. Ignoring the fact we have one theater, our City Council in true theatrical style held several meetings for “public input” regarding the Theater District from which they ignored every suggestion received only making a few punctuation and grammatical changes. Despite a history of failure, our City Council continues to push the idea that they can determine what businesses should be allowed and promoted and whom they will allow to frequent such businesses.
Now, do not misinterpret the above criticisms, I truly believe that Worcester has a lot to offer and has an abundance of potential. We just seem to be missing a clearly articulated vision, little incentive for those that can help us, and no long-term action plan to get us there so our City leaders continue to waste significant effort and resources including our tax dollars. The result is a lack of true progress and growing frustration. “A vision without a plan is just a dream. A plan without a vision is just drudgery. But a vision with a plan can change the world. ~ Old proverb” If our vision is a revitalized downtown with foot traffic and businesses for them to patronize, we need a plan and to work with those that can help us achieve that vision.
To develop our downtown, we need to incentivize business to reinvest as I have previously discussed. We need to assist where we can with infrastructure improvements. And we need to step back and stop the inclination to control others by letting business develop according to market forces rather than trying to impose our will upon others. History has shown that the free hand produces while the forced hand is held back. Development is important for the city, but it must be development that is lasting and beneficial in the long run to helping us achieve our long term vision, which is a revitalized downtown.