Monday, April 28, 2014

Education and Economic Development

What if education was Richmond's top economic development priority?

Current Economic Development Practice

The City of Richmond, through the Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) and Economic Development Authority (EDA), gives money and city resources to businesses (e.g. Redskins Camp, Shockoe Stadium, Boulevard Site) to have them locate within the city. These are priority economic development projects.


These businesses become the anchor, or attraction piece, to obtain more middle and upper income residents. These new residents spend dispensable income (sales and restaurant tax), and invest in property (personal property and assessment taxes), which in turn grows the city’s revenue base to better fund services and infrastructure to the poorest citizens and neighborhoods within the city.
Due to the city being unable to annex county land with jobs and middle/upper income households, the city must grow from within through redevelopment and revitalization. This is different from other examples in the south (i.e. Charlottesville, Durham, and Atlanta) that have been able to expand within the adjacent county to provide the revenue base to pay for services.

The Problem

To survive, these new businesses must continue to attract people from outside their local neighborhood, or even city, because the local economic base was not originally what attracted them to site (i.e. location made possible by government subsidy). The rationale that these businesses would be the linchpin for future development is not realized. The heavy up-front cost of public investment is not realized, and the city is left poorer with no other ancillary benefits from this initial investment in a select few.

One example where this concept was implemented and failed locally was with the 6th Street Marketplace. Further reading on this topic can be found in Roland Wilson’s 1989 master’s thesis assessing the failure of the 6th street marketplace.

The Solution = Education as a Top Priority

More middle and upper income residents need to be attracted, retained, or built-up from within (my favorite) the city to balance the income inequalities within our neighborhoods and grow revenues to fund city services. But, instead of government subsidies for one-time large projects, what if we made education the top priority?

Let’s say we made education our top priority within the budget and direct Richmond’s ECD and other city departments, along with the EDA, to make targeted investments and apply human resources to making Richmond Public Schools (RPS) a world class education system.

More money and emphasis on schools sends the message to middle and upper income families that they should stay within the city. Also, over time children of lower income families will become better trained and more educated, thus providing the opportunity to break family cycles of poverty. Check out this NY Times interactive map of economic mobility to see where these cycles are being broken today.

US Equality of Opportunity Project, Harvard University, 2014
Businesses see median household incomes rise and the development of a local economical base, thus making it fiscally viable for them to locate in the city. A sustainable system of consumer and businesses is created by the market, not artificially supplanted by government subsidies. An example of site selection factors can be seen in the City of Richmond’s VEDP profile.

But, let’s say this doesn't work as advertised and it takes longer for a business environment to be fostered. Are we just left with a vacant failed 6th Street Marketplace? No, because the ancillary benefits would be tremendous!

In the economic pursuit of investing in education, you now are FINALLY providing a world class education system to the numerous working poor and improvised families and children in the city. This would begin to account for past wrongs and degradation, while lowering future government costs to provide services. The fiscal benefits of education investment are detailed in countless academic studies, and are the main impetus behind why my former employer, the City of Hampton, funds “Healthy Family Partnership”. Programs like this are based upon real savings to city services (health care, incarceration, and other government services).

Could we really make this happen?

Yes, of course. Like most things in life, if you really want something to happen, you will find the time, money, or resources to make it happen. Think about that girl or guy who you pined for, and they finally said yes to a date. Did you worry about how much it could cost? I bet you would beg, borrow, or steal to pay for that date. What about scheduling conflicts? Are you really going to let your job or other priorities get in the way? Heck no.

Our City Council and Mayor should support the School Board and Superintendent in going after failing education in the way we would after a first date… minus the stealing part.

They are there to work out the details. We, the citizens, are here to advocate. So let your voice be heard and contact your city councilperson. Together we can advocate for more intelligent spending of public dollars and serve those in the most need, our current RPS students.

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