Question: Why do some sports teams win year after year?
Answer: Obviously, because they have the resources to hire and train the best players.
While writing my last post, I happened on a distinction that I hope is a major theme in this series: exhorting verses incentivizing. Think about it. When a pro sports team like the Lakers or the Yankees wants a major player, they don’t just harp on how great the team is. Instead, they prove to the player that there is a direct personal benefit to be won by coming to the new team. Usually that benefit is a fat paycheck.
The lesson, I think, is that if Provo is not (yet) as successful, exciting, hip, or whatever as we want it to be, the incentives aren’t (yet) sweet enough.
Provo is definitely getting better at attracting talent. New businesses are opening, the airport has gone commercial, old businesses are expanding, etc., etc. If Provo wasn’t showing a lot of promise right now I don’t think I would have been inspired to blog about the city.
But Provo needs to do a better job. Do we want to be the Los Angeles Lakers, or the Sacramento Kings? Daily I look at the handful of decent business on State Street in Orem and wonder why they would choose to be in the midst of sleazy payday loan centers and (what look like) meth labs, when they could be in Provo. Before my current job, I worked at a successful, very cool technology company. The only downside was it’s location, in an ugly building on an ugly street in American Fork. Similarly Adobe is opening up a new facility, near Point of the Mountain. Why there? (Proximity to the prison? All new Adobe employees will hang-glide to work?)
Obviously reasons behind location choices are diverse and complex, but each time a business chooses to locate elsewhere it’s a loss for Provo. To counter this, Provo should actively court and lobby businesses from both in and out of the state, enticing and incentivizing them to come to Provo. (Perhaps something like this already exists? Maybe some sort of lobbying committee organized or run by the city government? I hope so, but I haven’t heard about it. Also, the gains of such an effort should far outweigh the costs.)
Of course, enticing strong businesses to come to the city is fairly obvious. Who doesn’t want that? But equally important is getting residents to embrace those businesses, as well as the incentives offered to them. That could include land deals, fee or license waivers, rent control, or any number of actions the city could take to make Provo more economically and culturally attractive. “Whatever it takes” could be the slogan. Some of these actions may not be initially popular, but they will have long-term benefits.
I was reminded of the importance residents embracing incentivizing Saturday night, when I was at the grocery store around 11:50 p.m. As I poked around for cheeses, an employee got on the PA and announced that alcohol sales would stop at midnight. I don’t drink and had forgotten that such a policy exists in Provo, but as soon as I heard the announcement I realized it was a perfect example of a law that hamstrings Provo’s development. On top of Utah’s generally byzantine liquor laws (which are widely seen in the hospitality industry as economically damaging), Provo has additional rules that not only reduce local stores’ sales tax, but generally make life a pain for anyone who isn’t an orthodox Mormon.
The point is that if Provo residents want to become more prosperous, have more cultural offerings, and enjoy a higher standard of living (which I believe they do), we need to make the city more inviting to diverse people with diverse values. Related to alcohol sales on Sunday, that survey the city recently conducted returned several comments about getting rid of the bars and smoke shops in downtown. Fair enough, I guess, but those are apparently successful businesses. They generate sales tax revenue. They bring people into the city who might not otherwise come. They make it more diverse and ensure that downtown isn’t completely empty.
Whether or not new businesses coming to Provo have anything to do with alcohol or other things local Mormons avoid, the point is that prosperity hinges on diversity. Returning to the sports analogy, when a team courts a star player they don’t worry much about the player’s background, tattoos, or even scandals. They worry about what that player can do on the court or field. Having strange policies (or even a subtle cultural leaning) that demonized some backgrounds, body art, or scandals would doom a team because the best players couldn’t join.
Likewise, the city must make itself appealing to more than the usual crowd. Residents have to realize that the presence of people with different values — who dress and look differently, who patronize different kinds of entertainment, who consume different foods and drinks — is actually beneficial to them for so many reasons.
In other words, incentivizing means compromising, both of which produce prosperity.