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Home Town Economics as If People Really Mattered

By Peter Phillips
Director, Project Censored

Contemporary economic development and growth efforts in most
communities often tend to make the regional areas poorer instead of better
off. Isn't development & growth  - betterment for all - you ask? Well,
sometimes not. There are always losers and winners in any economic
development effort. The developers, real estate interests and other related
businesses, known as the "Growth Machine," would like us to believe that
growth brings progress. However this is often not the case.

Growth is not always bad nor is it always good. Obviously for a
community to accept a toxic industry that would create sickness and a bad
odor in the air, also accepts long range negative consequences in excess of
the new jobs and money the plant would bring. The Growth Machines adding of
that new subdivision may actually increase the fire insurance rates for the
entire community or require an expansion of the police department over and
beyond the tax base the new subdivision would bring in. Balancing the
positive and negative consequences in a realistic manner is an approach to
planning that is often not fully considered. Does new housing carry with it
financial impacts on community services and schools that exceeds the
economic benefits of the development? What hidden costs are present that
will be paid by the community collectively over future generations? The
Growth Machine is not inclined to find negatives that would interfere with
desired projects, and local citizens seldom understand the full range of
possible socio-economic impacts. Professional planning departments often
limit their evaluations to land use approval and positive economic benefits
without evaluating all the potential negative consequences.

Even "clean" development like retail stores and shopping malls can
have long range negative consequences. If you approve a Walmart in your
community what local businesses will be negatively impacted? Will the
locally owned hardware store and retail shoe shop go out of business?
Locally owned small business usually keep their profits in the community,
spending and respending the money. National retail chains treat communities
like colonies. They only reason for their existence is to take money out of
the community and return it to their corporate headquarter cities. This
makes the community collectively poorer as profits are taken out of local

Unfortunately, resisters to growth and development often based
their efforts on a nostalgic approach to keeping the community uncrowded
and retaining that small town feeling. This approach is usually overwhelmed
with the rationale that growth bring jobs and money . Even
environmentalists when opposing development on a sound regional protection
basis find themselves at odds with trade unions and the power of the growth
machine, and can end up compromising environmental concerns.

What we needed is a comprehensive socio-economic environmental
evaluation of each and every development effort in a community. This will
only be achieved if a watchdog group of citizens insists. The Growth
Machine pays a lot of attention to local community politics and the
composition of  planning commissions. Developers, real estate interests and
related industries are the principle funders of local city council and
boards of supervisor's campaigns. Local citizens who care about the future
of their communities must seek full assessments and evaluations of all the
hidden costs for growth and development by not accepting the traditional
simplistic rationale of jobs and money. Communities must ask the questions,
will the growth and development project bring long term living-wage jobs to
our community citizens or will it  hire people at below poverty wages or
attract outside people to move in to take the jobs it creates? Does the
growth and development effort result in greater economic capital in the
region or does money flow out of the community? Does the community benefit
as a whole fiscally, environmentally, and socially or are their hidden long
term negative consequences that are children will be paying? These question
must be asked if we are to treat growth and development as if people really
matter. We can create jobs and positive growth by supporting local business
and expanding within pre-determined social and geographic boundaries. We
can and should put a collective human face on how we see the future of our

Peter Phillips is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of
Project Censored at Sonoma State University in California. He can be
reached at peter.phillips@sonoma.edu

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