Economic Development: Surprise!

In today’s troubled economic times, it’s not hard to understand the sense of nervous excitement generated by the prospect of a new business locating in the area or of an existing business expanding: jobs, tax revenue, community involvement, stability.


If there were ever any doubt, see the crushing flip side of this when, say, the paper mill in Franklin County closed down earlier this year.


FOIA includes exemptions for certain records related to business expansion, location and retention. And there is a FOIA exemption in the meetings section for discussions about potential development where no prior announcement has been made.


The exemptions exist primarily to protect the government’s bargaining position. Another primary justification for confidentiality is that a private business may be leery of working with a government entity if it thinks that its business secrets could be spread around to competitors.


When the stakes are so high, it’s easy to get caught up in the campaign to make the dream come true.


The whole Commonwealth of Virginia was sitting on pins and needles waiting for defense contractor behemoth Northrop Grumman to decide whether its new headquarters would be here, or across the Potomac in D.C. or Maryland.


Few would dispute that having another Fortune 500 company relocate here is a feather in the state’s cap, though surely there will be some post-announcement debate about whether the incentives offered to the company will be worth it. That is, will the 300 potential jobs and tax revenue be worth the $12- to $14 million worth of incentives when many of those jobs will be taken up by employees relocating to Virginia, or by those who live in D.C. or Maryland? And what about the incentives the localities will have to kick in to get Northrop to choose a building in their fair quarter?


I’m not second-guessing the decision. I don’t know enough about the calculus of economic development decisions. This could be the best deal ever; it could be the best thing for Virginia ever. I just don’t know.


But I do know that citizens who have more, and less, knowledge than I are very interested in these or other economic development decisions. And they deserve to know what is being offered and what is being received. After all, these projects are supposed to (ultimately) benefit the public.


The Northrop deal wasn’t exactly a secret. But a cloak of secrecy does shroud at least two ongoing economic development decisions in other parts of the state.


In this story from the Roanoke Times, the Christiansburg Town Council agreed to waive certain zoning requirements so that a company promising “high-tech jobs with good pay” would locate in a publicly owned industrial park.


Don’t ask the town council the name of the company. Don’t ask the planning commission, either. And don’t even ask the head of the Montgomery County Economic Development Commission. None of them know it.


Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Abingdon) credits himself for bringing the new business to the area, but he won’t say who it is, either. Neither will the Virginia Economic Development Partnership in Richmond. Local officials in the know have signed confidentiality agreements not disclose any information. (On May 4, one Montgomery official broke the silence and confirmed that the business was a "data center.")


After accusations surfaced of alleged secret meetings and alleged bribes related to a solar-energy farm potentially locating in the Front Royal area, the Northern Virginia Daily reported that the head of the local economic development authority passionately pleaded the case for silence.


“Please, keep this stuff among the council until it's ready for public knowledge," she said. "This is a time that we all need to work together and need to figure out a solution to this. I can't afford to have 400 jobs go to another community.”


I don’t know if she meant to be ironic or not.


But I suspect if I were a citizen in one of these communities, I would be feeling a bit like a child whose parents suddenly tell him that he’s going to be sent to a boarding school. The kid has heard his parents talking in hushed tones when they think he’s not around. He knows they’ve been talking a lot about money, and “can we afford this,” or “will our investment be worth it.” He knows this is big, like character-changing big. But he’s not part of the conversation. After the decision is made, and the ink is dry on it, they finally tell him what’s going to happen to him, and assure him it’s for his own good.


It may be the best decision for this child. But it could also be disastrous.


After receiving incentives from James City County, John Deere suddenly shuttered. Gateway computers left Newport News and took with it the jobs it had once promised.


These decisions are all gambles: gambles with taxpayer money, jobs, and even the town’s very character.


Of course: be cautious. Don’t tip your hand unnecessarily.  But if these projects are for the public, then the public should be afforded the opportunity whenever possible to be privy to the discussion at a minimum, and to be part of it in the best case scenario.


We all want jobs. We all want economic growth. But we all want to be part of the conversation, and, as is very important in times of instability, to have a modicum of control. Letting the public in can give citizens some of that control.

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