There’s a battle brewing in downtown Provo, and the losers will probably be everyone in the city.
According to Genelle Pugmire, downtown business owners are in revolt over a proposed tax to pay for Downtown Provo Inc. In a nutshell, Downtown Provo Inc. is a nonprofit organization charged with building up the center of the city. They do events, outreach, publicity and business development. And they’re funded, in part, with tax dollars.
Those taxes are raised from downtown businesses that pay based on their locations. But the business owners don’t like it.
It’s easy to understand and empathize with the business owners’ complaints. They feel like Downtown Provo Inc. hasn’t done much, or anything, for them. They feel like it’s unfair that businesses closest to downtown have to pay more. And they feel like they just can’t afford more taxes. Those are all excellent arguments that need to be addressed.
Unfortunately, the unhappy business owners are taking fairly drastic measures and want any contribution to Downtown Provo Inc. to be voluntary:
“Economic development activities can hurt some businesses when it helps others,” the committee wrote in a letter to downtown businesses. “A new clothing store, book store, craft store, etc., can hurt or even drive an existing one out of business. There is no sure way to do no harm. Government should not be in the business of hurting one business to help another or to bring in new business.”
I have to admit that I was shocked when I read that statement. Obviously economic development produces winners and losers. Clearly.
But the opposite of development is what? Decline? Stagnation? That only produces losers, and the problems in downtown are a physical reminder of that fact. Ultimately, if downtown Provo was an exceptionally vibrant place and every business a success, some amount of stasis might even be acceptable. Sadly, however, that isn’t the case.
Again, to be clear, the businesses have legitimate complaints, and a few alternatives are explored in the article. If I was running Downtown Provo Inc. I might even do things differently. And there’s an important debate to be had about public investment in economic development.
But an all-or-nothing approach means de-funding development. And that seems to be the business owners’ desired outcome:
“Right now I’m not willing to pay for anything. I don’t see a need to,” Woodger said. “I don’t think we should be sponsoring things on our own dime when there is duplication.”
If no one is willing to pay for anything the city is left with economic nihilism and a lack of community. And as Mayor Curtis pointed out in the article, the environment of downtown is radically different from the one that existed when business owners first organized:
The downtown area itself has changed significantly since the early 1980s when business owners joined to create the Association of Involved Merchants and, Curtis pointed out, it is unlikely to ever return to the days of school shopping, sidewalk sales and cheap advertising.
Downtown Provo Inc. executive director Jared Morgan also pointed out that the area is continuing to change, and for the better:
Morgan added, “There’s buzz and nightlife and energy that is palpable in downtown now. Over 50,000 people have come to downtown in the past 10 months with events.”
More people won’t immediately benefit all businesses, but decline, stagnation and blight hurt everyone. It’s also worth considering that if tens of thousands of new visitors are coming to an area, it’s the businesses’ responsibility — and economic imperative — to market to them. In other words, if things aren’t improving the businesses share at least as much blame as Downtown Provo Inc.
In the end, there has to be a solution here that doesn’t include abandoning economic development. There must be compromise. That may not be the current form of taxation, but ultimately without investment downtown progress will stall.