Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Defining Home And Where You're From

A topic I find fascinating is the definition of "home" and where you are "from". Thoughts on these words were spurred by an article I read recently in the Riverfront Times.

I take a lot of stock in these terms as they seem to predict character and experience; at a minimum, the way you define "home" and where you're "from" are good indicators of who you are.  A strong sense of place is something I respect, you just can't lie about these things.

I for one am proud to be from Illinois and call St. Louis...well wait a minute, not so fast. This requires some introspection...what is home?

At times St. Louis feels like home, but for the most part, I feel like Illinois better meets my personal definition...even after living in St. Louis longer than any other place.

But, back to the RFT article that got me once again thinking about this topic.  I couldn't shake the thoughts on the meaning of "home" after reading an article that touched on the topic through the lens of a couple of my favorite things: music and where you're from.

The article: "Pokey LaFarge Is Looking to a Future That May Not Include St. Louis" was written by Thomas Crone and published in the Riverfront Times on February 3, 2016.

If you don't already know, Pokey LaFarge is a well-known musician who deals in American blues/county/folk/jazz music; but, done in a way that is not overly derivative, it's fresh and original...and steeped in history and executed with soul and style and always reminds me of the Midwest.

A true talent.

Anyhow, the combination of the story's title paired with the caption under the first photo got me. It read: Pokey LaFarge: "It's not my home, it's never been my home. I'm from Illinois."  He was speaking about St. Louis and I couldn't help but think "me too". I'm from Illinois but have lived in St. Louis by choice in my adult years...I knew this was going to be a good read.
Photo credit: Joshua Black Williams

Immediately relating to this guy, I started thinking about my hometown in Illinois. It's one of those moments when you read something and get lost in thoughts and memories and contemplation. I couldn't wait to get back to the article. 

As I read through, several things stuck out. First, when discussing the potential of moving on from St. Louis, LaFarge said:
"I think it's something that people have gotten wind of, and the game of telephone is going on," he says. "Of course I've thought about moving from St. Louis. No offense to it, but there's no industry there. There are not as many musicians to play with there. And when you're at the point that I'm at, looking for a new challenge, certain parts of the music business don't exist in St. Louis. My whole team lives in different cities, like Nashville, New York and LA. The opportunity to write for film... I've thought about that for over a year. I'm not from St. Louis, but it's the only place that's felt like home. Being close to my family up in Illinois is great."
And then again, LaFarge discussed playing LouFest and the back and forth of praise/criticism felt in the small St. Louis music scene as a successful artist:
"It's the park that birthed our World's Fair, a historic place," he says. "It's a landmark in our city. So that's not lost on me: the fact that it's a national festival, run by C3, and has our name on it. There's a certain amount of representing you've got to do. Among these other national and international acts, you're there to try to represent St. Louis....I'm sorry, but I've lived there over eight years. I'm not from there — it's not my home, it's never been my home. I'm from Illinois. And as much as I've represented St. Louis, there's a certain amount of people that have made me feel what it is and what it isn't."
There's so much to those statements, even a slight contradiction, if I'm interpreting it correctly. There is what feels like home and the factual home. Regardless LaFarge has lived here and represents the pluses very well...usually the people that I've run into that do this best aren't necessarily from St. Louis.

LaFarge's take was just so honest and refreshing to read, it stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking once again about the definition of home and growing up in Illinois and living in St. Louis and what that means to me. It also got me thinking about how people who live in cities west of St. Louis identify with St. Louis as their home even though they don't live here. I'm going to have to publish more on that topic as I find it one of the most fascinating and frustrating topics in this region. For whatever reason this sticks in my craw and as I get older, I don't want things in my craw. I want a clean craw, grudges only breed negativity.

I like when people are transparent and real when it comes to the city they live in and where they are from and what they consider home. This is how I try to represent myself on this blog.

But back to the definition of home...

I have lived in St. Louis for 22 years. I've lived in six different neighborhoods, three different houses and four different apartments/flats. I'm fascinated with St. Louis and it is my home of choice; it's my adopted hometown. But I'm not from here.

My personal love of St. Louis is well documented on this blog. Even though I am critical at times, I love it more than any U.S. rust belt city and I want the best for it and try hard to help St. Louis become a better place in my small/limited capacity as a citizen. 

That said, I'll be curious to see if St. Louis feels more like home as time marches on. But if I'm being honest as of today, it doesn't. And that is not a diss, it's just a simple fact that I and others in my family who ended up in St. Louis agree with. I'm from Illinois. I live here. My kids are the real St. Louisan's; but I'm a transplant.

I grew up and went to elementary and high school in a city just east of St. Louis called Belleville, Illinois. It is a proud city of ~42,000 and has a rich history and identity all it's own, distinctly separate from St. Louis' by many measures. Although the home I spent most of my formative years in is only 9.7 miles from St. Louis, it is a world apart. To give Missourian's a taste, it would be about equidistant from St. Louis as Town and Country or Florissant, MO. You'll have to just trust me on the differences. St. Louis was simply not part of my world until I moved here...it was a place I occasionally visited and that's it.

But, I gave up all my Belleville privileges long ago. I can't influence or leverage what they do, I'm an outsider from a citizen perspective. I want nothing but the best for Belleville, but only a charlatan would claim I have a stake in that city.

I made the leap across the river and don't regret it for a moment. But one point I'd like to make about this region is...you can't lump these places and these communities together. Belleville is distinctly different from St. Louis, so are Town and Country, Florissant, Ferguson, University City, you name it. I know the distinctions very well when comparing Belleville to St. Louis. I don't, however know the distinctions between the city and the many cities in the suburbs. I'm working hard on trying to understand it by repeat viewings of "Spanish Lake", reading "Mapping Decline" and trying to be a kinder, more open minded listener when County people claim St. Louis as their home, but can be pretty harsh on St. Louis at arm's length from the comfy confines of the burbs.

I can only claim that I'm from Belleville and I live in St. Louis, the definition of home is less factual...but, southern Illinois will always feel like home, way more than the city I've lived in for 22 years. I can't shake the formative years in defining who I am.

Like Pokey LaFarge, I'm not from here. I love it here, and I think he does too and has represented St. Louis very well both here and abroad. But, I can see why you'd want to move. But for me, that move will not be to a small town in the suburbs where you still claim the positives and separate yourself from the negatives of St. Louis...it'll be to an entirely different place.

Own where you are. Love the one you're with.

To most in this region living in St. Louis is subjective. To me, it is not truthful and does not align with facts and reality. The separation damages us as a region and the lack of honesty makes talking about the needs of St. Louis and the 90 or so cities in St. Louis County very tough.

Owning and engaging in your city...claiming it...is the first step to being proud of it and understanding how to make it and the region the best place.

Calling out these geographical, political and real distinctions can quickly be dismissed by detractors who want the best of both worlds (suburban living/STL identity) as provincial or parochial. I say until we are one big happy taxing and voting block...you know...one city, we should be proud of where we live, and proud of where we're from. But most of all, honest and transparent.

I am a small town, suburban, Illinois person at the core. I have learned some urban behaviors, and frankly I'm way more interested in St. Louis than small towns and suburbs these days, but it is good to recognize both.

But bloggers, journalists, politicians, residents...everyone should all say where they're from...own it. And then work for change and unity.

It is not divisive to accurately state where you're from and demand honesty in conversations. It is this level of discourse that is required to establish a baseline understanding of this region so we can move it forward. At some point in time, the many suburban cities in the county as well as the 300,000 or so St. Louisans are going to have the opportunity to vote to merge the region like our Midwestern peer cities of Kansas City, Indianapolis and Louisville.

How can we make that important decision if we are not honest about the realities of the region.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Discussion On Tax Incentives

I recently did a blog on all the development activity on De Tonty Street in the Shaw Neighborhood. In that post I made the following comment:
"It's really good to see this level of investment, taking vacant lots and bringing dignified homes and much needed tax dollars back to the people of the city....remember, a large part of the school budgets come from property taxes."
While this is true, it was pointed out to me in a brief Twitter exchange that while there is a little money added to the city coffers in the case of the De Tonty Street town home and apartments, there are significant tax abatements in place for the developers that allow them to pay very little property taxes for many years:

Now, my modus operandi as a St. Louis blogger is not to mimic real journalism where everything I say is fact checked, verified and sourced.

The writing I do here is strictly done as a hobby/no pay and that's what keeps it fun. I try to focus on my optimism and not my cynicism for St. Louis. I try to give a personal perspective on city topics through a typically cup-half-full lens.

That said, I want to gain an understanding of how tax abatements work and what they impact. I want to understand why so many people seem to be upset by this process (except for the developers of course). I've noticed this trend on social media and in some mainstream media outlets.

Basically, I want to know enough to be a critical thinker on the matter...and today, I stand ignorant on the subject.

And if someone takes the time to reply with thoughtful exchanges of ideas or data on social media, I'm open to continuing that conversation. So I reached out to Andrew Arkills through Twitter and a couple days later, we're talking over coffee on the subject.

The purpose of this post is to provide some resources for those who want to learn a little more on this complicated topic and to share some of the things I learned from Andrew and some of the opinions we shared.

So why does Andrew care so much and seem so knowledgeable on tax abatements?

He works in the private sector in the supply chain field where he's tasked with budget and cost of goods savings for his employer. He's a numbers guy and is fiscally conservative by training. Best of all, he's a concerned citizen of St. Louis and is worried about what he considers abuse of tax abatements, the process of how they are awarded to developers and the overall city budget.

Why should we be concerned with tax abatements for developers?

We are told that the city's budget is barely balanced and the the schools don't have enough money and that the city's credit rating has been downgraded.

Tax abatements don't fit the model of paying down debt, providing services and maintaining our infrastructure. 

When you listen to why most people move to the suburbs, they will often cite crime and/or schools as critical factors. Schools receive a significant portion of their budget from property taxes. 

A breakdown of what your property taxes fund can be found on the city's website and below:

~58% of property taxes go to the schools, but the zoo, museums, libraries, junior college, parks and recreation and routine city maintenance and services are funded this way as well. This is important stuff toward making a city livable. 

For instance, the zoo has mentioned the possible need to start charging for admissions due to losses in tax base that are due in part to abatements.

It affects us all.

But there is headway being made toward making some much needed changes to the system.  A study was commissioned by the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) and completed in May, 2016. It takes a comprehensive look at tax incentives. Here's an excerpt from the executive summary:
As with most major US cities, the City of St. Louis uses a variety of tax and other incentives to foster economic development. These incentives include tax increment financing (TIF), tax abatements and bond financing; they are often coupled with state and federal incentives, such as the state historic tax credit and the federal New Markets Tax Credit. Over a 15 year period, the value of the primary City tax incentives (through TIF and tax abatement) has totaled $709 million. 
While economic development incentives are broadly used, there are legitimate questions about their efficacy and administration. To gain a better understanding of past and present use of incentives in the City and across the country, the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) commissioned this study.
The report is nearly 200 pages and is quite thorough, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and NextSTL both wrote very insightful pieces on the report. But, I would start with the full report if you want to know the extent that incentives have been given throughout the city.

Click HERE to download the full report.

I asked Andrew where he got the information included in his tweet on how much taxes the specific De Tonty town homes and apartments project received and he said you can find tax information on a parcel by parcel basis on the city's Geo St. Louis website. This is where you can enter an address and see what property taxes were paid as well as the assessed value. For instance, if the developer paid taxes for a year when they owned a lot and paid a small amount of taxes, this is what the value stays at for X number of years after the project is completed. Those terms are negotiated between the developer and the city.

Sometimes this tax information is hard to find. Andrew found that when a property is about to be abated, the history is removed from Geo St. Louis so you can't see the amount the city lost. By his best estimation, the city is not even tracking how much they are removing from the tax base. There is no easy way to track the incentives, and from an audit standpoint, this can be risky and untraceable. 

The city is not sharing the annual amount it is giving away. It is not being tracked. Andrew has tracked it for a year. The SLDC study claimed the number is around $709M over a 15 year period.

We both agreed that we are not anti-development, and there are cases to be made where TIFs and abatements are successful: think of cash cows like IKEA that will likely pay off the municipal bonds earlier than the the agreed upon term, or historic tax credits that help incentivize preservation of our built environment. These make sense. 

But if we're going to move forward we have to do so in a smart, coherent manner. As of now, incentives are managed on a ward by ward basis.

In some wards, a community development corporation (CDC) may be calling the shots; as is the case in the Central West End; but where neighborhoods do not have that resource, it is largely up to the elected alderman to assign these incentives, seemingly on a whim.

Andrew explained that by statute, abatements have to be sponsored by the alderman. A developer can approach the SLDC or the alderman. A bill then gets introduced in the alderman's name, and they have to specifically say "no" if they do not agree with the incentive. Otherwise, it gets introduced to the floor and once it gets to the point, it is hard for it not to pass.

We discussed the lack of process, formula or rubric to fairly qualify and consider incentives and appropriately assign them across the city on a project by project basis. We need a scoring matrix that proves the benefit to the citizens as well as the developer.

It would be much more transparent and palatable to the citizenry if a formula was in place to remove the subjectivity and relationship aspect. That formula could include important variables like a certain percentage of affordable housing units, minority participation in construction, numbers of jobs it will create to offset the property tax loss, etc. 

But it is hard to stomach incentives for a business to pull a musical chairs and move from one part of the city to another, not creating new jobs or services and abandoning another property in another part of town.

We agreed that you don't want to close the door entirely on incentives; clearly there are cases where it is needed, like struggling neighborhoods where there has been no development for years and the infrastructure has rotted or is non-existent.

A compromise seems easy in theory, we just need the political will to make it happen. The great thing is, we both agreed that more people are paying attention to the system. We should demand a coherent, streamlined, process-based system. We simply need oversight to help fight cronyism.

We are not alone in this thought, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an excellent editorial piece making a strong case for a plan:
The plan should also encourage ending a quaint political perk known as “aldermanic courtesy,” which means an alderman doesn’t ask too many questions of a colleague requesting a tax abatement in his ward. 
There should be healthy debate and lots of scrutiny about the best way to encourage balanced development. If well-connected homeowners or developers are buying property in healthy or upcoming neighborhoods yet still receiving tax abatements for five or 10 years, aldermen need to be asking why.
The formula has to be transparent and used justly and fairly across the city. People will be okay with that. We need an economic development plan to share the rules and look at the city's needs and what needs to be developed, what corridors are being prioritized for development. That would make it easy to see the marching orders and see the goal. Like if the city had a goal to get rid of 25% of their LRA properties by x year, we'd watch it change.  Say for instance if Page Avenue was prioritized as a commercial corridor, we could agree to incentives to bring back some much need services to an underserved population.  Incremental change is accepted if it is transparent and rules are followed.

Hopefully as the mayoral debates come to fruition and the aldermanic numbers decrease, this will be part of the discussion. We share the hope that while social justice, race, crime and poverty are huge issues and are the ones that lend themselves to headlines and attention grabbing quotes, we need to keep the tax base system as part of the discussion.

Hopefully people like Andrew will be the ones to keep the discussion going and convince more people like me to take a harder look, do some reading and try to think critically on this important issue.

Hey, nobody wants to pay taxes, my home has historic tax credits that limited the amount of taxes I pay. That will expire soon and my taxes will go up. I'm not happy about that, but I accept it. 

I'm just not convinced each and every project needs TIF or abatements. We need a smart, transparent, just formula. It's hard to believe a ten year tax abatement is necessary in CWE, Shaw or Tower Grove South. The developer needs to fund projects, not the city. The schools need the money. We can't keep giving away the treasury.

I think we'd be a much better city.

I'm hopeful that we can make these much needed changes and we can elect people with the will to execute a plan.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Employee Time

I went into Randall's on a weekday to buy some beer. It was outside of my normal routine, during the day-ish, maybe 3:00 or so. The vibe was different. The employees were running the show...by show, I mean the music in the place.

The tunes were decidedly not what I usually hear in this place on a Friday or Saturday night. They were employee-selected. The volume was meant to be heard. It sounded great to me, the place was empty of customers, but rocking.

Everyone was singing in somewhat unison...it was together. Enough to be noticeable.

Let the neighborhood be the neighborhood. Let the employees listen to what they want. Let them call the shots and you suddenly have a neighborhood place in the true sense of the word.

Happy people.

Never have I learned more about the word community than I have working as a lawn mower, glass cutter, delivery driver, fast food hack, newspaper telephone salesman, bus boy, dishwasher.  When you work these jobs, you realize how simple community can be.

Our strength in St. Louis is our people living real lives, working real lives...living right here.

Let the soundtrack reflect that and we'll all be happier and realer...a place that isn't canned and presented to consumers.

The little things make me happy living here.