Setting Priorities for Civic Investment

I’m still plugging away on my “Economy 4.0” series. This edition, I tackle the topic of setting priorities for civic investment.

I start my column, “Tomahawk Chop,” with a brief discussion of the much-lamented decamping of the Richmond Braves to Gwinnett County, Ga. The Braves cited the inability of the Richmond region to settle upon a location and financing mechanism to build a new ballfield as the reason for their move. I make the case that the loss of the Braves is no big deal. Richmonders clearly didn’t want them to stay badly enough, or they would have gotten their act together. The fact is, Richmonders have lots of other places to spend their civic resources.

(Dave Anderson makes the case, which I share, in a Times-Dispatch op-ed today that Mayor L. Douglas Wilder deserves most of the blame for screwing up the Braves’ favored alternative of locating a ballfield in Shockoe Bottom. But that’s another story for another time.)

By “civic resources,” I mean three things (a) pork barrel projects made possible by our state and federal elected officials, (b) capital improvement projects funded by local government, and (c) philanthropic contributions from the citizenry. There is only so much pork that our legislators can bring home (thank goodness), only so much indebtedness local governments can take on for things like convention centers and baseball stadiums, and only so much money that can be milked from individual philanthropists and community fund-raising efforts.

Just as government should prioritize how it spends its money, so should communities set priorities about how they invest their civic resources. Currently, most regions approach civic improvements haphazardly. Many communities make laundry lists of projects they’d like to see funded, but very few have a strategic plan that articulates criteria for ranking projects, and then so ranking them.

I suggest that there are four broad strategic alternatives for investing community resources:

  • Knowledge creation. Basically, we’re talking schools, colleges, universities and research institutes.
  • Quality of life. For the most part, this category covers hospitals and health care, museums, the arts and the environment.
  • Safety net. Lending a helping hand to the poor and afflicted.
  • Social activism. Political agitation to bring about social and economic change by changing institutions rather than helping individuals directly.

By funding one type of project over another, we are making strategic choices. Most citizens would agree that the community should provide some support for United Way-type projects to help orphans, battered women, the homeless, substance abusers and the like.

Conversely, here in Virginia, there appears to be relatively little appetite for funding social activism. The prevailing ethic is that poor people should take responsibility for their own lives. Provide them a safety net if they fall, and give them the tools they need to succeed. Don’t waste time trying to change institutions. Other than the fact that I’d like to see an outpouring of community support for Bacon’s Rebellion — we’re all about fundamental change — I really don’t have a problem with this attitude.

Speaking for the Richmond region, however, I do spot a significant imbalance. We provide far more attention to quality-of-life issues than knowledge-creation issues. Richmonders under-fund knowledge creation, especially scientific knowledge creation. Outside of VCU, the Ethyl research center (petroleum additives) and Philip Morris’s new corporate research center (tobacco and cigarettes), very little R&D takes place here. And Richmond will never become a world-class center of knowledge creation because only a handful of people are thinking seriously about the issue, and our civic resources are monopolized by the demands of quality-of-life organizations.

Richmond has museums and performing arts groups out the wazoo. History is wonderful (I read historical tomes voraciously) and so are the arts. But does the region really need three major organizations — the Virginia Historical Society, the Valentine Museum and the Museum of the Confederacy, each competing for resources? Is that the statement we really want to make about ourselves: Our bodies may live in the 21st century but our hearts live in the 19th? If our strategic objective is to make Richmond attractive to the “creative class,” should we be investing so heavily in cultural institutions, as opposed to institutions of knowledge creation? Are we even investing in the right cultural institutions?

I fully expect that many people will disagree with my priorities. But I hope everyone would agree that regions should develop criteria by which to articulate their priorities so they don’t squander their finite civic resources on projects of trivial value.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Municipal government in Richmond has vast responsibilities to provide infrastructure, education, and other basic services that benefit the majority of citizens. Funding performing arts centers, baseball stadiums, and other entertainment venues may be fine for most cities, but given the severe crisis in Richmond, do these “economic impact investments” (a curious phrase), may any sense?

    Why fund Mozart to County residents attending a City venue (that counties do not help construct/operate) when children in Richmond literally cannot get into the school house door?

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    May I suggest:

    Introduction to the Balanced Scorecard
    Feb. 19-21 in Washington, DC

    Course 301 – 3 Days

    This course shows a step-by-step methodology to build and implement a balanced scorecard strategic management system, either public or private sector.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    I am with “anonymous”.

    Where does a basic right like equal access to a quality education come in?

    Richmond does have a few good schools, ones that win national awards. But it is in moral and legal crisis for ignoring the priority of ADA access to schools.

    Leadership that continues to give taxpayer money to corporate losers like the VaPAF while ignoring basic citizen priorities shuold be lined up and shot.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim Bacon’s dimissive view of the Richmond Braves smacks of elitism.

    The beauty of baseball is that it transcends economic and educational classes. You don’t have to have a university degree or a six figure income to enjoy a good game on a warm night with a cold beer.

    Despite its woes, the Diamond had attendance of roughly 500,000 a year. One month alone some years ago, attendance was bout 200,000.

    The Virginia Museum’s annual attendance is on the order of 450,000 a year. The Science Museum has maybe 200,000 a year. Also, these figures include 12-month, not five-month-a-year operations.

    Moreover, how one regards these museums depends upon his or her taste. Personally, I think the Virginia Museum is a great place and await completion of its renovation. I have found little of interest at the Science Museum and have seen far better elsewhere.

    Bacon may not be much of a sports fan but he shouldn’t just assume (tut tut) that professional baseball is too plebian to bother with.

    Peter Galuszka

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Peter, I think professional baseball is great — as long as the Plebes want to pay for it. I think the Symphony, Opera and Ballet are great, too, as long as the hoighty-toighties want to pay for it. To my mind, it’s all one form of entertainment or another, it’s not a core mission of government, and government shouldn’t be in the business of funding any of it.

    The *only* exception is for a museum or cultural facility that provide programs of educational value to K-12 schools, and then the state support should be limited to those programs.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim Bacon:

    “I think professional baseball is great — as long as the Plebes want to pay for it.”

    Are you pulling my chain or proving my point?

    Peter Galuszka

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