In 2002, when I ran for County Commissioner, most people were talking about jobs. As I stated repeatedly throughout that campaign, government doesn't create jobs - that's what the private sector does. But government can provide an environment that is conducive and helpful for job growth in the private sector.
Obviously, that message resonated because, by the elections of 2004 and 2005, everyone was using the phrase 'government doesn't create jobs.' The problem was that repeating the phrase didn't ensure that the speakers understood it or even believed it. That didn't matter, however, if it got the person elected.
Entering 2009, we will have a mayoral election in Toledo. Not surprisingly, every politician is still talking about jobs - except in the last 20 years or so (perhaps longer, but that's the time I've been involved) the issue of jobs has been the number one mantra and Toledo is still in decline.
Mayoral candidate Keith Wilkowski, a shrewd politician, yesterday announced his economic advisory team, calling it an 'economic recovery council' (see? very shrewd, indeed). Lisa Renee at Glass City Jungle has the press release. He takes an appropriate swipe at current mayor Carty Finkbeiner who promised jobs but has yet to deliver and sets the stage for an interesting discussion over the next year for who is the best person to elect to 'turn this area around.'
But I believe the discussions are already off target.
We have the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, the privately run and funded Regional Growth Partnership, the Lucas County Improvement Corporation, and NORED - Northwest Ohio Regional Economic Development Association. The city, or the tax dollars of its citizens, support all but one (RGP) of these economic development groups.
So why does the city of Toledo need an economic development department or strategy? If government cannot create jobs but only provide an environment for job growth, the focus of any city's efforts in economic development should be reaction to the private sector needs.
Numerous studies, reports and research, coupled with plain old common sense, will tell you that in order for a business to be successful, it needs to make a profit. Businesses make profits when their costs are lower than their earnings. They need a stable regulatory environment that treats them and their competitors fairly. They need taxes and fees that reflect only the mandated functions of government in order to keep them minimal - and preferably lower than what their out of city competitors are paying. They need a pool of workers who will meet their needs in terms of skills and knowledge.
While many politicians talk about 'quality of life' as economic development, most businesses will tell you that such issues are so far down the list that they only consider those things when every other need is identical, which is rarely the case.
Our existing economic development groups can - and, in fact, already do - provide information to the various municipalities about what businesses need. They are well-equipped to inform elected officials and administrators about what things the government can and should do to help provide a pro-growth environment. Sadly, most of the time they are not heeded with decision-makers focusing on their own ideas instead of responding to the true needs of businesses.
Even Wilkowski has fallen into this trap, talking about 'jumpstarting the economy' through more government spending in order to 'put Toledoans back to work.' In his recent proposal for a solar field on top of our landfill, he proposes that city government must promote our local industries, especially solar panels.
However, in promoting any one particular industry, the city will, by default, not be promoting another one. This puts the city in the position of picking and choosing winners - and using public policy and funds to do so. That's not a stable regulatory environment that treats all our businesses fairly. And any money spent on 'new' ideas means that those limited funds are not spent on existing needs like roads, police and fire - the core functions of a government.
Think about it: will Toledo attract new and varied businesses because we spend millions of tax dollars to build a solar field on top of our landfill? Or will business owners be more likely to come or expand here because our tax structure (sales, income and property) is lower?
Most of the time, elected officials end up interfering or hampering real economic development because they're so busy promoting government, and especially government spending, as the solution, rather than truly responding to the non-headline grabbing needs that already exist. They end up working against what could happen if they'd just get out of the way.
So as we enter the 2009 campaign, we should not allow mayoral candidates to frame the discussion of economic development in terms of what government spending they will propose. We should insist that they detail how the tax and regulatory environment in the city will be improved to truly create an environment that will allow all businesses to grow, creating the jobs we so desperately need.