Boondoggle Projects and Decaying Infrastructure

As New Orleans reinvents itself after Hurricane Katrina, political and civic leaders plan to cultivate tourism and “culture-based” industry. The big new idea, writes urbanologist Joel Kotkin, is a publicly subsidized, $1 billion Riverfront development catering to the “creative class.” While the city morphs into a “mildly raucous, hipper Disney World,” the long-term migration of the once-vibrant energy sector to Houston continues unabated. The new New Orleans may be a great place for saxaphone players to make a living, but it won’t offer much for traditional blue-collar and white-collar workers.

The whole “creative class” thing has gotten out of control, Kotkin argues in an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. American’s state and local governments are over-investing in glitzy arts and entertainment complexes, sports stadiums, luxury hotels, convention centers and light-rail lines, and under-investing in the maintenance of its mundane roads, bridges, water-sewer facilities and electric power lines.

“Public capital spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually,” Kotkin writes. “Nationwide, 44 new or expanded centers are in planning or under construction.” By contrast, he adds, “The American Society of Civil Engineers says that $1.6 trillion must be spent over the next five years to prevent further deterioration. Only $900 billion is now earmarked.”

Starving critical infrastructure in order to fund money-losing boondoggles like sports stadiums and convention centers is not a long-term path to prosperity, Kotkin contends. Until politicians adopt a coherent, back-to-basics strategy that funds real needs instead of pork-barrel projects, “we can look forward to more natural disasters, bridge collapses, subway malfunctions and power shortages.”

What Kotkin doesn’t say, but I would add, is this: Many politicians have hijacked the rhetoric of Richard Florida’s “creative class” theory to justify their spending on the glitzy, “urban renewal” projects that Kotkin criticizes. The irony is that sports stadiums, convention centers and performing arts complexes are not what the creative class is looking for. Florida, the creatuve-class guru, regards them as largely a waste of money. He contends that the culturally, entrepreneurially and scientifically creative elements of society are lured to cities characterized by openness and tolerance. They also seek “authenticity” and street-level culture. None of those are attributes that are attainable through Business As Usual, pork barrel politics.

Bottom line, we’re getting the worst of both worlds: We’re not funding our infrastructure needs, and we’re not even creating the kinds of communities that the creative class wants to live in. We’re just keeping the politicians in power.

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17 responses to “Boondoggle Projects and Decaying Infrastructure”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Kotkin makes some good points in his WSJ oped, but the choice of New Orleans as an example of failings of the “creative class” might be misleading.
    When it comes to arts and partying, New Orleans has always been in a class by itself. There is no real point in bringing it up since this part of its scene — bohemia, diversity, etc. — is its very essence.
    What makes N.O. a good example is the fact that it was largely destroyed by inattention to infrastructure. Local, state and federal officials knew foir years that dikes and dams were inadequate. Nothing was done, to fix the infrastructure. We’re seeing the same thing in Minneapolis and other places — the result of tight monied and narrow minded public leaders (many of them no-tax Republicans like the ones who love to blog on this site) and now the turkey has come to roast.
    Don’t see how the much-gnawed over “Creative Class” has anything to do with cheapness about providing safe bridges roads and dams. Let’s ask the “genius” Jim Gilmore about infrastructure.

  2. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    I’m going to try to get these numbers under control. I go for annual.

    “Public capital spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually,” Kotkin writes. “Nationwide, 44 new or expanded centers are in planning or under construction.” By contrast, he adds, “The American Society of Civil Engineers says that $1.6 trillion must be spent over the next five years to prevent further deterioration. Only $900 billion is now earmarked.”

    Public capital spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually.
    the maintenance of its mundane roads, bridges, water-sewer facilities and electric power lines. $320 billion annually.
    Now earmarked $180 billion annually.
    Shortfall $140 billion annually.

    1.7% won’t go far to solving the maintenance problem. Let’s look elsewhere.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    How can you even post this without mentioning by name the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation?

    Richmond leaders won’t even work on ADA problems with schools and yet the opera house folks still operate outside public accountability.

    Its a disgrace!

  4. Norman Leahy Avatar
    Norman Leahy


    Richmond would make an excellent, though depressing, example of the sort of behavior Kotkin describes.

    The Performing Arts Center boondoggle, complete with its own dedicated meals tax, is a good place to start. Then, of course, there was the failed attempt at a new stadium for the Braves in the Bottom, complete with its own new tax district, and let’s not forget the white elephant that is Richmond’s convention center (conveniently close to the old white elephant, the late Sixth Stree Marketplace).

    There are still plans afoot for trolleys to reappear downtown, and versions of the performing arts center continue to plow ahead, with many of the same problems as the old one.

    At the same time, Richmond’s streets rival logging roads, brownouts are becoming a new, handy feature and some of the city’s schools teeter on the brink of abject failure.

    And let us not forget the post-Gaston flood fiasco, the loss of an entire neighborhood due to ancient, crumbling drain pipes and the post-Isabel problem with the city’s drinking water (no back up power? Eh, it costs too much).

    Good grief…sometimes it’s a wonder Richmond survives at all.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Norm, You are right — Richmond has shown a proclivity for large, white elephant-style projects, and seems to have neglected unglamorous but critical improvements to infrastructure. The pattern occurs over and over. Government needs to stick to core functions and do them well. If civic and business leaders want to build a convention center, ball park or performing arts center, let them go ahead — if they can raise the money themselves.

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Jim Wamsley, You make a valid point. The size of the infrastructure deficit dwarfs the commitment to glitzy urban re-development projects. Deleting the glitz projects from the Capital Investment Plan would free up only a small fraction of the funds needed to put infrastructure on a sound footing. We need to find a lot more money somewhere, somehow. But setting priorities would be a good start.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    “Richmond would make an excellent, though depressing, example of the sort of behavior Kotkin describes. The Performing Arts Center boondoggle, complete with its own dedicated meals tax, is a good place to start.”

    Hear, hear.

    But talk about the 900 pound elephant in the room!

    While it’s nice of the writer to remind us that Richard Florida’s words have been co-oped, it is disturbing that he refuses to mention and discuss at length the disgusting misuse of city and state tax dollars by the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation and the Richmond arts center they want to fund that has no arts professionals running it.

    Where are the specifics we usually read about here at Bacons? In this case, we don’t seem to be getting the straight dope.

  8. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anonymous 10:56, I thought the Richmond Performing Arts Center was relegated to the ash heap. What’s left to discuss?

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    Man, if you believe that, you really are uninformed on the subject.

    The project plows ahead despite all the raised concerns.

    There is speculation that Wilder is doing a quid pro qo with Richmond aristocracy, an arts center in return for more control over School Board.

  10. Groveton Avatar

    For all my frustrations with the state of Virginia I would cite Charlottesville as an axample of where the “creative class” (I hate that term) is being effectively wooed. Sure – UVA is a big help in that regard but the local political leaders have (in my opinion) done a pretty good job of capitalizing on what they have and making it better. It’s good to see the White Spot is still in business but the local leaders know it will take more than Gusburgers to keep the city growing.

  11. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    This is a very good post on a very important topic.

    The Greater New Orleans New Urban Region has many important lessons for anyone interested in human settlement patterns.

    One important lesson is that spending on infrastructure must be increased but before citizens spend more on infrastructure it needs to be infrastucture that supports functional settlement patterns.

    Jim is right that the idea of creatimg places for “The Creative Class” has beem hijacked.

    Unfortunately, almost everyone cites some aspect of the Katrina story to futher their view of the world. Joel K. is no exception. The same is true for the 2nd Anniverary stories that were in WaPo last Sunday that were cited elsewhere on this Blog.

    We will add our view in a column in the next issue of Bacon’s Rebellion extending the observations we made in “Down Memory Lane With Katrina” back on 5 September 2005.


  12. Anonymous Avatar

    You are right – this is a valuable discussion. I’m surprised that Jim hasn’t been following recent developments. Especially as his excellent post seems to dance around the very issue of what is happening in Richmond.

    As Richmond’s arts center debacle shows, you don’t need a hurricane to create a disaster. This bunch has been the gang who can’t shoot straight for four years. Their arrogance has only been matched by their increasing incompetence. But they do one thing very, very well — wheedle public money and resources out of Richmond’s elected officials.

    But, no matter: it’s just Richmond. We’re used to stupidity and corruption, right? Perhaps that’s what Jim means when he says this is not worth talking about. In a way, he’s right. This is the way Richmond has been run for years.

    Still, the other part of this story is being missed. Curated Culture’s First Friday Artwalk gets NO support from the city. Period. And my understanding is that many requests have been made. The city (and that includes both the Mayor’s office and city council) ignores the artwalk in spite of the fact that it has succeeded in rehabbing Richmond’s downtown where all of the white elephant projects have failed at great taxpayer expense.

    Ah, but who do the arts foundation bigwigs piggyback on when they want to sell their CenterStage scheme at some big hyped groundbreaking ceremony? Yep, First Fridays and Curated Culture (a.k.a. the “street-level” arts).

    But who gets the half-mil payout from the city — after closing down the Carpenter Center for two years, lying about fundraising totals and wasting millions in past taxpayer funds)? VAPAF.

    What’s wrong with this picture? I guarantee that Mr. Florida could tell you.

    Oh wait – he did:

    “Arts complexes may provide some infrastructure but they are far from the solution. Communities need street level arts and music scenes and the energy they generate to be successful.”


    “The 1950s are over. Some places can’t accept that.”

    In closing, anyone who uses “the creative class” to sell what is currently happening to Richmond’s taxpayers — and its historic theatres — is engaging in a serious act of wishful thinking. Or out and out distortion.

    — Don c/o Save Richmond

  13. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    A Tysons Corner twist – The Tysons Corner Task Force is considering proposals to bring on as much a 135 million square feet of new density, but is taking the position that infrastructure needs should not be considered at this stage. The Task Force appears to believe that it can design this monster in a vacuum and leave the public facilities questions to county staff later on. There is no comparable level of insanity anywhere else in Virginia — or probably in the rest of the United States.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    Let me see if I understand this. The Richmond Performing Arts Center is supposed to be a “boondoggle.” Can someone explain to me why it is anathema to use public money to support the arts, such as the Richmond Symphony?
    Or is the anti-tax dogma on this blog so pervasive that it becomes truly anti-intellectual and anti-cultural. What’s next? Burning library books?

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    I object to your comments, Anon. You really should find out the background of this particular project before you accuse people of being “anti-art.”

    I normally ADVOCATE for public funding of art, especially here in Virginia. But no one who claims to support the arts can possibly stomach the outrageous boondoggle that has been going on for more than four years now and equate opposition to it to advocating the burning of library books.

    Or are you saying that it is OK — in the name of art — to:

    – Foist a permanent consumption tax hike on city residents without a single public meeting discussing the project, and without a single independent feasibility study justifying the project.

    – Fund a performing arts center that has no artists or arts professionals in positions of authority – and to resist all calls to put local arts professionals or even community arts representatives in any oversight role.

    – Waste millions in taxpayer dollars to build a hole in the ground, only to demand more, and more, and more public tax dollars, without any meaningful public oversight.

    – Fudge, or outright lie, about private fundraising totals in order to weasel more public dollars out of weak city and state politicans.

    – Refuse to show the public your bank statements or your construction bid totals so you can continue to play games with your true financial condition.

    – Break, or bend beyond recognition, the city’s legal guidelines for public-private partnerships.

    – Squander the endowment of — and close down for more than two years — Richmond’s most prestigeous downtown theatre.

    – Put the city’s arts companies in such bad financial straits that they have to ask for handouts from the Community Foundation to stay afloat. All while:

    – Wasting millions in excessive executive salaries and expensive PR events. (Should an arts center exec with no experience and no fundraising success clear $300K a year? Would it be akin to “burning library books” to say no?)

    And so on. There is more, much more. And it’s all in the public record waiting for you, Anon.

    If you want to read about what VAPAF has done from a neutral source who is far from an anti-cultural voice or anti-tax zealot, log onto the Arts Journal website and read Drew McManus’ stories on Richmond’s woeful arts center project.

    Please note the many times Mr. McManus tried to get the Foundation on the record with quotes, only to be turned down.

    Then read the STYLE WEEKLY article linked at the end, and read how the Foundation claimed to have documentation supporting the center that it could not produce.

    This is what we are talking about — bad actors playing with other people’s money — not the power and cultural importance of “art.”

    — Don c/o Save Richmond

  16. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Don raises a really good point about the First Friday Artwalk. That incredibly popular event — for those not from Richmond, read this — arose from the initiative of a handful of passionate individuals with a good idea, and it grew from the ground up with no public funding, or even any backing from the big civic organizations. Imagine that — no public funds. That’s the kind of “street culture” that Richard Florida is talking about, and that’s the kind of initiative that tends to get crowded out (although not in this case) when the big guys try to put their imprint on things.

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