IDA, Ag, Sewers and Pol Pot: Questioning Basic Ec. Dev. Wisdom

August 1, 2018

V I E W P O I N T S

 

The Cambodian dictator Pol Pot was famous for marching city dwellers—doctors, lawyers, university professors—into the countryside, where they were forced to toil in the fields.

 

A lot of them died. The term “killing fields” was coined during this four-year reign of terror as Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge thugs tried to control every aspect of citizens’ dress, religion, reading and vocabulary, as well as realigning the country’s rice paddies so they would look like they did on the country’s coat of arms.

 

History will remember that regime as murderers and maniacs—but I have a sneaking sympathy with the emphasis on agriculture.

 

Of course, the thing with the rice fields and the coat of arms was nothing but bad gardening. Trying to make your garden look like the seed catalog picture is enough of an exercise in futility. Throw in patriotism, propaganda and Artist’s Conception Of pics and you might as well give up and live off Instant Breakfast. But my point remains: What is wrong with agriculture?

 

That is not the real subject of this editorial. The real subject of this editorial is: What is wrong with Dade’s IDA, the Industrial Development Authority? We’ll get to that in a sec.

 

But first let me blather on for a sec about agriculture.

 

Dade is an old farming community and that’s why it’s such a nice place to live. Farmers thrive on individual effort—them taters don’t plant theirselves!—but also on cooperation, neighbor pitching in to help neighbor build a barn or get the hay in. That farm fortitude and that farm friendliness persist in the character of the people even as fewer of them actually farm, and that’s why the first thing a city transplant like me notices is what wonderful folks live here.

 

Agriculture, after all, fosters many of the virtues Americans most treasure—hard work, stewardship of resources, independence, personal responsibility. Country people are great people! It shines through even in the way they poop.

 

See, we country people are responsible for our own septic tanks and would rather cut off our own buttocks than flush anything that didn’t emerge honestly from in between ‘em. Townies, meanwhile, have municipal sewers clogged with cigarette butts, tampons, Wet Wipes, pet hamsters, tiny alligators—basically anything small enough, or that can be reduced to pieces small enough, to be disappeared down the toilet.

 

After a sewer-intensive public meeting one night (in one of Dade’s few areas that have a sewer to clog) I told a fellow country-dweller—Mr. Planet, in fact—about one such instance and watched the blood drain from his face in horror. “Dental floss?” he said. “Oh, my God. What were they thinking?”

 

Dental floss is an insidious material that can sabotage plumbing worse than ary old Molotov cocktail. But what does the townie care? After the flush, that’s somebody else’s problem.

 

(And so are those baby alligators, until they grow large and evil in the festering sewers and sneak back up the plumbing to bite the unsuspecting butt of somebody who pees in the night without turning on the bathroom light. But I digress.)

 

My contention here is not so much that sewers decay moral fiber (though you could make a pretty good case for that based on baby alligators alone) as that the healthy agricultural life simply makes for a better class of citizen. My personal experience is that it also makes for a happier kind of life.

 

A lot of other people have thought so too, as is reflected in cultural references from the Roman historian Livy to John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy. And I’m not even going to mention Green Acres.

 

Even IDA (I told you we’d get to IDA sooner or later!) on its website seems to celebrate Dade’s agricultural nature, calling it “a serene fertile valley located between historic Lookout Mountain and stately Sand Mountain.” What does IDA mean by “fertile,” if not suitable for the growing of crops?

 

So why is IDA’s whole purpose, its raison d’etre, to turn Dade from a fertile agricultural valley into a mill town?

 

The underlying premise of all economic development authorities—and practically every county in the rural South seems to have one these days—is that agriculture is dead as a doornail and country people need industry to provide them jobs. Therefore counties flop on the ground and beg industry, any industry, to relocate to their fields and pastureland, which they give away free of charge along with tax-free status for the foreseeable future.

 

Dade’s IDA’s mission statement, taken from its website, is “to aid existing industries in Dade County prosper and expand and to seek out and attract new industries so that our citizens benefit from quality jobs and improved quality of life.”

 

The kind of industry that development authorities want, of course, is the Volkswagens of the world, big modern plants that will employ a lot of local people, pay them handsomely and treat them like a million bucks.

 

But Dade is a small pond and with all the other rural counties competing to woo, vamp or simply bribe the big fish, Dade’s IDA settles for just about anything it can reel in. The Vanguard truck trailer factory it turned somersaults to bring into the county advertises it pays $10 or $11 an hour and as I report on local institutions I keep hearing more about it that is discouraging:

 

There was some misunderstanding as to how and where injured workers were to be dealt with, I wrote once; the plant was supposed to employ 400 as part of its deal with the county but can’t manage to recruit enough workers to fill the 140-170 jobs it has so far, I’ve reported several times; it has asked about interviewing people recently released from jail in order to obtain sufficient manpower, I wrote another time.

 

How is this promoting “quality jobs” or “quality of life?” I have also heard, and reported, that Vanguard complains Dade’s workforce is slovenly and drug-addicted—but to me, it simply doesn’t sound like an attractive enough place to work to attract the best and brightest.

 

Nevertheless, IDA keeps pouring more and more public money into it. In Feb 2016, when I began The Planet, and the Vanguard facility was still under construction, I reported that IDA made a $500,000 commitment to provide infrastructure, including roads and an insanely expensive rail crossing. 

 

The state of Georgia had paid Vanguard $1 million in cash. In addition to that, I wrote: “Cervelli [the then-IDA director] told the city commission that the Georgia Department of Transportation had initially pledged to add $204,000 to IDA’s ​$500,000, and was later persuaded to part with another $200,000. “It’s still not enough,” he said.

 

Then, in March 2016, I reported: “Trenton Mayor Alex Case agreed that the Vanguard plant was important to the city as well, and on Monday he announced that he and the commissioners had decided to part with $57,986 from SPLOST (special-purpose local option sales tax) funds and $42,014 from the general fund to make up a $100,000 commitment to the project."   

 

That summer, in July 2016, I reported: “…with IDA out of funds…the Dade County Commission is chipping in $134,450.56 to finish the road and had asked the city government to split that cost. Case in turn asked the Trenton City Commission to approve $65,220.28 in SPLOST."

 

In December 2016 I reported that a water line to Vanguard had cost $100,000—“I almost had a heart attack,” said Cervelli—but that Dade County had picked up the tab.

 

Now Trenton is awaiting an ARC  (Appalachian Regional Commission) grant—it was originally for $300,000 but I believe through the years it has eventually gotten whittled down to something like $128,000—that it will immediately turn over to the Vanguard effort, to finish paving Vanguard Road.

 

Why is IDA turning over public money, tax money, your money, to a for-profit company where local people don’t seem to want to work? In a period when I keep seeing JOB FAIR or NOW RECRUITING signs in every local store, restaurant and business? Where at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon State Sen. Jeff Mullins proclaimed that everybody who wanted a job had a job?

 

I drove past the McDonald’s recently and saw it was advertising it pays $10 an hour, too, and I bet you get fries with that. Maybe even the occasional Big Mac!

 

As the Local Press I sit in public hearings and keep my ear to the ground for local gossip, and I hear howls of outrage every time city or county officials spend a dime. I keep wondering why people don’t scream about their local and state governments funneling literally millions of their dollars to Vanguard.

 

Another thing: IDA keeps saying it wants to “broaden the tax base” and “relieve the property tax burden of homeowners by adding industry to the tax base.” When actually one of IDA’s major functions is to keep businesses from paying any tax at all. Not only does it grant tax forgiveness for decades as part of its incentive package, it acts as landlord to businesses to protect them from property tax on their buildings, holding title to their real estate and in some cases to their capital assets as well.   

 

Now, let’s move on to another beef: IDA is required to hold open meetings (though The Planet is the only media outlet that sits through ‘em) and what I’ve listed here is the stuff I’m allowed to see and hear. There is a lot I’m not. Practically any time anything vaguely interesting comes up, the executive director says: “We’ll discuss that more in executive session.”

 

Executive session means they kick out the public and the press. Public bodies are allowed to do that in certain specified sensitive situations, such as to discuss personnel. Real estate is another one, and of course IDA buys and sells land (or donates it to businesses it’s wooing) as part of its basic function. But sometimes it uses the executive session privilege for reasons that simply baffle me. Once, when discussing what kind of fast food joint was interested in coming to town, they did the we’ll-discuss-that-more-in-executive-session thing. What is sensitive about hamburgers?

 

But everything about IDA is cloak-and-dagger! There are code names for the companies IDA is trying to vamp so that nobody knows—not even the board members, or so they say—what fish they’re trying to land unless or until they reel it in. So what you’ve got is a body capable of giving away land and tax money with a contact list including developers and big business—and a thick cloak of secrecy over practically everything it does. It is a system simply begging for corruption.

 

In fairness I must stipulate that the people who sit on the board of Dade’s IDA seem like solid, well-intentioned citizens acting out of genuine community spirit. But look around at neighboring counties and neighboring states and you won’t have to look too hard to find instances where the Ec. Dev. system has almost certainly been abused.

 

This whole business of doling out public funds to private companies, basically taking from the citizens and giving to those who already have plenty of money, this corporate welfare thing, has always worried me, and under the old executive director, I used to say: I hope you guys know what you’re doing!

 

The old ED was Peter Cervelli. His name was Italian for “Brains,” he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I used to tease him about winding up in Dade as a result of the FBI’s witness protection program. But he’d been doing economic development for Dade as long as there’d been ec dev in Dade, he had the trust of the community leaders, and I was fond of him, too.

 

But now Cervelli’s turned over the reins to a new guy, and frankly there’s a trust gap there a mile wide.

 

William Back, the new ED, is a lawyer who turned up about 10 years ago, he said from Atlanta. He attached himself to various volunteer organizations and told tales about growing up in South America and running western-propaganda radio shows in former Soviet satellite countries, tempting housewives who wanted to make cookies with how much sugar and butter they could have under capitalism. They were all entertaining stories and I had no reason then to think they weren’t true.

 

Then, in 2013, while I was working for the print newspaper in town, a local woman came and asked for my help—having been victimized by a rapacious lawyer named William Back.

 

I couldn’t believe at first that she was talking about the same William Back attached to all the local do-good organizations, but so it was. William Back besides his volunteer work was also a voracious buyer-up of local real estate, and he had bought her family home out from under her when it came up for auction.

 

The woman was a particularly sympathetic example of what may be called the Deserving Poor. She was a single mother who had worked 14 years at the same job as she struggled to care for her severely birth-defected son who was confined to a wheelchair. She explained that she should probably have done better in keeping the house out of foreclosure in the first place. It was her parents’ house that she had grown up in and which they had meant to be there for her and the special-needs son after they died. It had come to the auction block during a confusing series of ownership transfers between her and the parents during their last years, for some Medicare-related purpose.

 

In any case, they were dead now, a loan they had taken out against the house had gone unpaid, and the house went to auction. The woman enlisted the help of a neighbor to back her financially as she bid to buy it back. William Back hired the wife of a local realtor to attend the auction and outbid her. That’s what happened, the woman lost her house, and he took possession of it in the name of a company called West End Realty.

 

I had a hard time accepting William Back as the mustachio-twirling villain of a drama like this, but after I questioned the neighbor, the realtor’s wife and William Back himself it was clear the woman had been telling the truth. And it also became clear that Back was a serious stinker.

 

At first Back tried to tell me he had simply been “retained” by West End Realty. When I looked it up and saw West End Realty was his company, he then tried to fob me off with the argument that being the company’s “registered agent” didn’t prove he was the owner. But eventually he gave up that whole tack and we started a negotiation for me not to write about it in the rag if he gave the woman a fair shot.

 

The woman and her neighbor offered to buy the house back for more than Back had gotten it for. He and his partner in Atlanta—I talked to him, too, and felt I needed a shower afterward—would have none of that. Back was determined to keep the house but said he’d offer the woman some sort of reduced rent for a certain period. I didn’t want to be the negotiator between them and I turned the whole email string over to the woman for her to deal with.

 

In short, I failed miserably, the woman was ultimately turned out of her house, and I am still ashamed I didn’t scream to the world what an oily POS William Back was. But I was working for somebody else’s newspaper then and didn’t know if it would fly; technically Back wasn’t doing anything illegal, only, you know, evil. But since then, I’ve looked at other parcels he’s accrued in Dade—I counted 14—and wondered how many of them had sad stories like the one I've told you.

 

Anyway, I didn’t say anything five years ago and now here I am having to watch the stage villain take the reins at IDA. I tried to stop it: I took my concerns first to Nathan Wooten, the IDA chairman, who told me he’d heard no ill of Back except from me. Then I talked to Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley, who told me that there wasn’t much choice: Not that many people had applied for the job, and the runner-up candidate had just gotten out of federal prison where he’d served time for embezzling over a million dollars from his former employer. IDA needed an ED if it was to qualify for Ec. Dev. grants, said the Boss, and Back was there and available and hadn’t done jail time—so what if he was turning kids in wheelchairs out into the street?

 

In a way, it’s fitting. IDA’s business has often seemed like reverse Robin Hoodism; why shouldn’t it be led by someone who sees the poor as natural resources ripe for the harvest?

 

Now. I’ve listed my objections to IDA’s mission, its methods and its leadership. But since the word “harvest” has arisen, why don’t we go back to my original question: What the hell is wrong with agriculture anyway? Why shouldn’t Dade focus on returning agriculture to the county instead of bringing in questionable industries, questionable ec. dev. practices and questionable people?

 

Agriculture hasn’t been gone that long. When I interviewed retired Court Clerk Sarah Moore one time, she told me she and her husband had raised crops for the local Red Food grocery chain to supplement their income while their children were small.

 

It’s just been in the past few decades that grocery stores stopped using local produce in favor of cottony crap trucked in from all over. The young cashiers at the stores now don’t know a turnip from a turkey baster and can only ring up apples because of those little paper ovals on them that are the modern equivalent of the worm (because you are always finding half of them and realizing you must have eaten the other). 

 

But now the tide has turned again and local agriculture is all the rage. I see signs for tomatoes and peppers at Trenton grocery stores: LOCAL PRODUCE. But underneath it there are smaller signs that add, pitifully: “(Grainger County, Tenn.)” or “(South Carolina).” They ought to say RISING FAWN or SAND MOUNTAIN.

 

They will! The neo-agricultural movement is well underway. I received, and ran in The Planet, a press release from the Georgia Cattlemen about bringing beef finishing and processing back to the state. At a chamber of commerce luncheon, I heard about an initiative to begin serving 20 percent local produce in school lunchrooms by 2020. I thought at the time it was disappointing—20 percent? In an old farming community like this? But hell, it’s a start!

 

And this past weekend Mr. Planet and I drove through Summerville, which is festooned with signs for the Chattooga County Agricultural Fair later this month. Neighboring Chattooga brought back its county fair in 2014 to feature local livestock, honey and produce. 

 

So the movement is coming and it’s getting closer! I hope Dade will jump on the bandwagon—or farm cart, as the case may be. (Maybe I’ll jump myself! Potato farming has its ups and downs but it’s got to be at least as profitable as running an independent newspaper, and sometimes you get fries with that.)

 

The return of the rural South to farming might well be aided by local governments pitching in to help identify markets, recommend practices and facilitate merchandising. Why shouldn't Dade incentivize the Ingle’s to use local produce rather than trucking it in, instead of using the money to bribe companies to build truck trailer factories here? Why not exchange IDA’s I for industry into an A for agriculture? ADA is a nicer name than IDA nohow!

 

And agriculture is a nicer field than industry, a sunny, open and honest field which has, I might add, the additional perk of not requiring the construction of sewers. Sewers are expensive to build, problematic to maintain, and erosive, as we discussed earlier, to the core values that make farmers great.

 

Do I seem like a nut job on this point? I am not advocating marching people out to the fields at gunpoint to make farmers of them. I am just saying perhaps we should devote our resources to helping farmers and would-be farmers who are already here instead of to bribing low-paying industries that are not. And I think history will eventually see governments that handed over million-dollar checks to profiteering industries as a little nuttier than ones that tried to nurture agriculture.

 

Finally, I just worry that all this IDA business of negotiating with mystery investors who may or may not be interested, or exist, and extending sewers to industries who aren't even there yet, and giving public money away to private industry that already has plenty of it, is something that in the end is going to fester and grow and eventually crawl back up those pipes and bite Dade County in its unsuspecting butt. 

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