The fictional story, "Field of Dreams," contained a romantic sounding, and now often quoted statement, "If you build it, they will come." This phrase has become a favorite of developers. Unfortunately, it is not always true.
What is true is that profit-seeking enterprises/entrepreneurs must be involved in providing something that is needed, and do so at a time, place and price that accomplishes this.
As a former lender, I learned several lessons regarding developers:
1. If you allow them to, developers will fill the world with empty buildings.
2. While it is true successful developers can create value, it is imperative they have actual and substantial financial investment in their projects. Risking only their reputations is not enough.
3. Assuming the only true experts are from out-of-town is erroneous.
We have experienced much successful development here in Billings as the result of efforts of fine local developers. Note the number of new structures and businesses that have developed near the Interstate accesses in West Billings and Lockwood where customers and employees have access to the freeway without having to wait for a long train to pass.
As a result of my experience in economic development, I developed a strong belief that the best thing government can do to encourage free enterprise and entrepreneurship is to step aside and let the market operate. While I am quick to agree we need government to protect us from the bad and greedy, regulation needs to be kept to a minimum.
Government's most important role is to provide a reliable infrastructure of safe and dependable roads, bridges, airports, sanitary water and sewer systems and to provide for our protection via well trained and effective police and fire departments, and maybe most importantly, an education system providing quality educational opportunities.
Providing these services at the lowest possible tax levels and keeping regulation at a minimum necessary level are the best things government can do to encourage and complement free enterprise.
Many government incentive programs are unnecessary, and only create additional taxes, competitive advantages to those receiving the incentives, and another level of costly administration. These subsidies assist a few shrewd developers to take advantage of the general public in order to enhance their projects while others subsidize their venture and unwittingly are put in a position of paying dearly for failures.
I have seen studies involving economic development where corporations have been polled to decide the factors they value and consider when expanding into a new market. Surveys have shown subsidies and incentives are minimally important.
What employers really value and desire include: A skilled workforce availability, educational facilities for continued education opportunities for their employees and to serve as a source of new employees. After this, they desire to see highly rated police and fire departments, an outstanding medical center, good access to transportation including rail, highway and air, quality K-12 education system, reasonable taxes, recreation and entertainment opportunities and a well-maintained infrastructure.
Billings ranks very high in many of these categories with the only real black eye, in my opinion, being the number of gaudy casinos, pawn shops and quick money outlets we now have, as these types of ventures serve as both symptoms and evidence of community social problems.
Successful economic development involves the attraction of primary employers utilizing well-trained human talent either producing or value-adding to the production of needed goods and services. These businesses offer attractive wages and benefits and the fulfillment of a market need.
The one thing that would have assured our downtown business viability as an attractive place to locate would have been to provide a way for visitors exiting from the 27th Street exit to do so easily without having to wait for train traffic to pass. Now, thanks to Amazon, E-Bay, and other online shopping sites, and the technological advancements making financial shopping as convenient as our home computer, the world has forever changed.
Is it truly in the community's best interest to gamble based upon the assumption, "If we build it, they will come?"
I don't think so.
If we fail, other communities will become even more attractive in comparison to us.
Kreuger lives in Billings.