Now Open, but So What?
For advocates of free markets, St. Louis city presents a disturbing environment for the conduct of business. Indeed, the fact that so few construction projects occur here in the absence of subsidy necessarily makes the rare market-based development a news item in its own right. But what about projects that do not make the news?
Pictured above in August 2010 is the 1818 Washington Ave. Building in downtown St. Louis. Paired main entry doors punctuate the center of the building’s primary facade, while four ground-level storefront bays are at right. A pizza restaurant occupies this retail space, displaying a bright red-on-white background “Now Open” sign, in addition to handsome neon signs for Bud Light and Bud Light Lime.
Two blocks to the southwest, at 2001 Olive St., a one-story building features plywood boards over the entirety of its glazed area. Permanent signage for the pizza place remains atop this building, while a banner reading “We Will be Relocating to 1818 Washington Ave. July 1st, 2010,” with red lettering on a white background, hangs from a ground-level storefront bay at left.
In a truly competitive free market, the story would end here: A business moved from one building to another. So what?
As this business relocation occurred in St. Louis city, however, legislated market distortion and an administrative exercise in symbolic violence likely contributed to the outcome pictured above.
On the legislative front:
Ordinances 67319, 67462 and 67463 designated 1818 Washington Ave. as a redevelopment area, executed a redevelopment agreement between the developer and the city of St. Louis, and authorized “$2,380,000 Plus Issuance Costs” in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) notes for the construction of 1818 Washington and another nearby project.
On the administrative front:
In addition to TIF, the 1818 Washington project stands to utilize “Federal and State Historic Tax Credit programs.” Combined, they could yield up to 45 percent of the project’s costs in tax credits for the developer — 20 percent for the federal credit; 25 percent for the state credit. (The building is a contributing resource in the “Lucas Avenue Industrial Historic District (Boundary Increase),” after all.)
In a free market, favorable lease terms or a street address on the vaunted Washington Avenue could prove enticements enough for a business to relocate. In St. Louis city, we are instead left to ask what role public monies are playing in a business location decision, and whether associated municipally approved TIF legislation is actually legal.
Missouri TIF law states the following in §92.805(4), RSM0:
For redevelopment projects or redevelopment plans approved after December 23, 1997, if a retail establishment relocates within one year from one facility to another facility within the same county and the governing body of the municipality finds that the relocation is a direct beneficiary of tax increment financing, then for purposes of this definition, the economic activity taxes generated by the retail establishment shall equal the total additional revenues from economic activity taxes which are imposed by a municipality or other taxing district over the amount of economic activity taxes generated by the retail establishment in the calendar year prior to its relocation to the redevelopment area;
If the pizza restaurant succeeds at growing its revenues dramatically at its new location, the rehabilitated building’s developer will prosper as government loses funds that it would receive were the restaurant not in a TIF district. Had the rehabilitated building attracted a business truly new to St. Louis city, government would receive a greater share of the TIF project’s associated revenues.
Subsidizing projects that displace economic activities from one site to another is a losing proposition for cities and their residents. In St. Louis city, the elimination of TIF would allow our community to awake from its current nightmare of ever-increasing taxes and instead move us toward broadly shared prosperity, courtesy of the free market.