Economic growth has become a very important topic of late. Growth implies jobs, more goods and services, improved choices for consumers and more tax revenue for government. All of that sounds great. However, growth is not the goal. The point is how such growth enhances (or detracts from) the well-being and quality of life in the community. The other issue is the cost that growth exacts on the community in terms of resources and lost opportunities.
Locally, Kingsport suffers from what might be termed “growth-ism.” This concept says: Growth must be achieved at all costs. When growth is achieved, we are successful; when it is not, we are failing. According to this view, Kingsport is faltering (especially when compared to Johnson City and now Bristol), and “something” must be done.
For Kingsport, “growth” and its twin, “economic development,” have become an ideology that has hardened into dogma that is virtually impossible to challenge or critique. We appear to have moved beyond making growth a means to an end, a way of achieving prosperity. It has become the overarching objective for our community.
Growth has become our false god. Through it, we’ll be saved! Our mantra was, “When we reach 50,000 population, all will be well. Retailers will beat a path to our door. Government grant money will freely flow.” It didn’t happen, but no matter; we just need to spend a little more. It will surely happen next year if not this one.
Unfortunately, if a city leader invokes either term, no further analysis is needed. “Growth is good!” Therefore, anything that can be remotely connected to it is beyond question. We pursue policies that have some superficial benefit without seriously considering the potential consequences, then act surprised when the results were less than hoped for.
For at least the past 20 years, Kingsport has focused on expansion. Sadly, our inherent “growth” in population and employment has been tepid at best. Consequently, we have aggressively pursued annexation in an attempt to artificially appear to be growing. As a result, many of our current problems are self-inflicted, the direct result of our actions.
In part, we have a large low-income demographic because we chose to annex north Kingsport in the 1990s when the southside annexations were halted by the courts. Likewise, the move into the Rock Springs area started with the incorporation of several low-income areas. This is not a normative statement about the people incorporated, but we must recognize the statistical outcome.
Despite the fact that we have an excellent education system, it is partially masked behind an indicator of low socioeconomic standing. The city has a significant number of Title 1 schools, indicative of a large number of students eligible for free or reduced lunch. We also don’t seem to grasp that when our policies negatively impact the surrounding county schools, we further reduce the desirability of our entire community.
We have diverted money that could (should) have either been left with the citizens in the form of lower taxes or spent on the true core functions of the government (public infrastructure and safety). Annexations increase the fees (another word for taxes) paid for sewer and water in order to pay for lines that otherwise would not be needed. This affects every household in our community.
Furthermore, by setting a property tax rate after the property reassessment that is higher than the state equivalency rate, the BMA has deliberately raised the taxes we pay this year, even though it claims it lowered the tax rate (which in this case is irrelevant to the actual amount of taxes paid).
The most recent offering to the god of growth is the ill-considered subsidy for the development of upper-end housing. We are doing this to counter the result of previous actions. It constitutes an un-analytical knee-jerk reaction and a waste of our tax dollars. It is reprehensible for our leaders to take money from an already underfunded road repair program. It is a further slap in the face to announce that they will simply borrow more money in the future to replace it, yet again increasing interest costs and the need for tax money.
It is sadly apparent that our growth-ism has become almost a cult. Like the extremists in California, our leaders announce the arrival of the alien spaceship (prosperity) to deliver us. Of course, it hasn’t appeared as predicted. But no problem, it will be here same time, same place next year if we apply yet a bit more effort (spend more money). But we know in our hearts that the aliens won’t arrive, that true growth is not built on short-term gimmicks and an abandonment of who we are.
Fortuitously, there is a fledgling movement to begin a strategic planning process within the city. Unfortunately, it appears largely to be confined to the input from the existing staff and elected leaders.
Given the track record, I foresee a resultant plan that largely confirms our current trajectory and calls for additional public expenditures in the futile pursuit of growth.
I regrettably admit that having been in public office, I was once seduced by the arguments for growth. I voted for and permitted some of the mistakes listed above to occur. I regret those decisions. I now believe it is time to leave the cult and demand our leaders undertake a comprehensive reassessment that embraces new ideas and out-of-box thinking. It is also time to replace the high priest. He holds far too much sway over our elected officials.
Dave Clark is a Kingsport businessman and a former alderman.