This will be my last post before the election. And to sum up, I want to talk about ‘balance’. I know this post is a bit long, so if you want to save some time, I wouldn’t blame ya bit if you simply skipped down to THE CHALLENGE.
For those of you still here, I want to first mention my Public Comment at the City Council meeting on October 12, 2017 which has stirred a bit of controversy. You can watch it here. My comment starts at prox. 3:00.
If you skip ahead a bit to where the Council Members are allowed to give their ‘report’ back to the Mayor for the record, every CM took an opportunity to get their licks on me for making what they strongly implied to be either racist or discriminating against the poor. I find this laughable given the fact that I know our current council’s policies pretty well and I think I know ‘me’ very well. But viewers who watched on the cable TV may not so perhaps some explanation is in order.
Now as disingenuous as this may sound, it never crosses my mind that people now watch council meetings on their TVs. I suppose I should feel good about that given the emptiness of the council chambers. But it also makes me forget that there is an audience. Despite what some may think, I am not making a speech. My Public Comments really are directed to the Council Members; I am not being rhetorical. I don’t go there to argue or lecture. I simply want them to think about what I’m saying! So my comments are often ‘inside baseball’, reflecting things that we already know about each other, but that you do not. And the comments I’m about to talk about refer to things they know I’ve been upset about for a while.
My comments that night, which I admit I made in a very poor way, had to do with balance. All cities need to keep a LOT of things in balance in order to thrive. We need a healthy mix of different housing stocks: single family homes vs. apartments, owners and renters. The city government also needs to keep a balance between sources of revenues: sales taxes, business taxes, property taxes. And there are also environmental balances. For example, it’s important to have a certain number of parks and trees. Right now, we’ve lost a significant amount of forest with the development of the new Business Park. So the city and people like me are negotiating back and forth as to how we regain as much of that tree canopy as possible.
What I was trying to get across is this basic challenge: Des Moines residents’ incomes and homeowner property values have been shrinking relative to the rest of King County. While the rest of King County has been seeing a huge increase in property values and their residents a rise in income, Des Moines residents are not sharing in that prosperity.
At the same time, we are also in the midst of a very large resident turnover. In fact most of the people living here now did not live here ten years ago. In short, we have a city of new residents, who, taken as a whole are less well-off than a generation ago. And this has real consequences for the city’s future.
THEN VS. NOW: NOSTALGIA
When I first moved to Des Moines, my neighbours were engineers at Boeing, accountants, a store manager at Albertson’s; solid middle class people who lived around the region and found Des Moines to be a great place to raise a family. Des Moines had, in my view, the best value proposition in the region. They (and I) moved here at a time when the city garnered most of its revenue from property taxes. You see, Des Moines was designed to be a ‘bedroom community’; primarily for homeowners and small businesses. That was/is its charm. A place for families on the water. Des Moines was never meant to be a place that supported large industry as we’re seeing now with the Des Moines Creek Business Park. And forty years ago, the balance of homeowners paying property taxes worked well.
But now? We simply cannot generate enough sales tax from property taxes. Earlier city leaders did not have the foresight to see that change coming and transition the city smoothly. So now we’re having to re-invent ourselves in very short order.
THE CURRENT STRATEGY: INDUSTRIALIZATION
To do that, the current leadership is aggressively increasing the industrialization of Des Moines. This strategy has profound implications for that ‘balance’ I referred to.
Now the very appealing part of this strategy is that it pays the city’s bills without asking you to pay more. Great, right? And on top of that, since we do have such low property values relative to the rest of the region, we’re now one of the last places in the area that is considered ‘affordable’. Hooray!
DES MOINES IS A WATERFRONT COMMUNITY
But we’re a waterfront community. And waterfront communities should not have some of the lowest rents in a given region. In fact, a waterfront community should be highly valued (think Edmonds, Shilshole, Mukilteo, Poulsbo, etc.) It should be a powerful asset that attracts residents with higher incomes and visitors with higher incomes and small businesses to serve those clientele. That’s the way you build a great Downtown and Marina organically, by making it more valuable; by attracting people who can afford to support it.
ANOTHER STRATEGY: MARKETING
So my desire has been to market the city to the rest of the region; a region which has very poor awareness of Des Moines but has higher incomes. I believe that we need that waterfront to be highly valued in order to make the Downtown, and in fact the whole city, thrive again. To do this, we need to be reaching people who work at Amazon or on the East Side who can’t find affordable homes elsewhere. We need to encourage that same middle class to locate here for the best value proposition as was the case thirty years ago. In short, we need to actively market to recruit higher income, long term residents.
THE ‘G’ WORD
If what I’m suggesting sounds a bit like gentrification, you’re not wrong. Des Moines has always been proud of its working class roots and more than a little bit suspicious of pretense. But as I’ve been saying, we’re actually less affluent than in past generations and our property values are now lower than they should be. So a little gentrification would not be a bad thing at all. I believe the reason the Downtown and Marina are not thriving is because they do not attract the kinds of traffic that can support small business. Our current mix of residents and visitors simply can’t afford to support a great Downtown and Marina. But if we turn that around by recruiting for (somewhat) higher income residents and small businesses this also improves the lives of lower income residents because they also benefit from the improved businesses and infrastructure. Sorry for the bad pun, but a rising tide lifts all boats.
THE LONG VIEW
However, if the city continues on the current course of industrialization, we will have an ever-increasing mix of lower income residents. If that’s the case, then we should have an infrastructure of services that are designed to meet those needs. And we should have the revenue to handle the increased needs of those residents. But we don’t. We have always depended on private institutions and grants to handle the needs of lower income people. Has that worked well? Just ask any of these groups. In public they may say that all is great because they need to work with the city, but in private, they will tell you just how overwhelming the situation is.
THE TIPPING POINT
So the question is: what kind of city do we want? Because every increase in industrialization means a change to the city. More traffic. Fewer trees. Less of that ‘bedroom community’ so many of us moved here for. And I believe that such changes make us less attractive to potential long-term, more affluent residents that we need to organically support our businesses.
I think we are at a tipping point. It’s up to us to decide what kind of city we’re going to be in the next forty years: a city with a valuable waterfront and a balanced mix of residents and visitors with the disposable income to support it? Or a city which depends primarily on income from industrial parks (and the airport) to service an increasingly lower income base of residents?
IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL COME?
To me, the current strategy is a passive one. It basically does nothing to compete for potential residents who might be unaware of Des Moines. The game seems to be that we build a new Marina or other ‘attractions’ and hope that they attract the residents and visitors we want–just like in that movie, “If you build it, he will come.” I believe this is a real mistake. I used to live in Detroit. They wasted billions building shiny new structures, only to see them waste away because the residents and local businesses could not afford the flashy shops and business offices. And people outside of Detroit? They continued to shop and work where they were.
I believe that many of the revenue problems we have would be lessened if we simply restored the income balance of residents to the same place we were at thirty years ago. This would then drive organic improvements to the small business health of the entire town. In short: we improve our city by actively encouraging a healthy mix of residents’ income levels. And we do that simply by marketing the city to the rest of the region.
RESTORING THE BALANCE
My campaign has been about restoring the balance I loved so much when I moved to Des Moines. And that means making the city more desirable to the rest of the region; not just people in the immediate area who are seeking the lowest possible rent. It means making Des Moines once again the best value; not simply the cheapest. And to do that I’ve been fighting the over-industrialization; the increasing influence of the airport on city planning; the ever-increasing noise and pollution. Because no one with a healthy income will want to live here if they don’t feel it is safe and healthy.
I always say: I want to make Des Moines a great place to raise a family or retire or have a small business. To accomplish those goals we need to work pro-actively to encourage a proper balance of residents at all income levels. I did not word that properly in my Public Comment, but it’s the truth. It may be a hard truth, but it is the truth. If we either cannot or will not work towards this re-balancing, we cannot expect to regain the quality of life which a great waterfront community should expect.
The main thing I want to leave you with is that I do not advocate trying to manufacture some artificially ‘exclusive’ community. Des Moines has been and always will be a city with down to earth residents. All I’m suggesting is that we get back to the value proposition people had come to expect. We can get there. But such a change will not happen on its own. And it will not happen by simply building some shiny new structures. It will happen; because we work to tell the rest of the region about what used to be our secret and let the market go to work.