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April 26th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: How the mayor gets the economic development answers she wants

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS

As a longtime observer of political issues polling, I have learned that many politicians design questionnaires in a way that assures that choices are limited and the desired outcome predictable. This appears to be the case with the City of San Marcos’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.

Economic Development San Marcos, the City of San Marcos, the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce, the City of Lockhart, Hays County, and Caldwell County hired Market Street Services “to coordinate a visioning process for the area’s residents, businesses and leadership.” You can be sure that we will all have visions when this process is through — mainly visions of taxpayer money wasted to arrive at foregone conclusions acceptable to the economic development elite that run this town.

The process includes an online questionnaire that limits choices and ignores many concerns about neighborhood integrity and quality of life that have been at the forefront of citizens’ concerns for three decades.

The project claims that it will answer the following questions:

  • What are the area’s competitive strengths and challenges?
  • What development should occur in the San Marcos area?
  • What is the Greater San Marcos Area’s unique niche?
  • How can area leaders organize and market to support economic development?
  • What are the core “directions” that San Marcos must move in, and what are the priority actions that will enable the area to achieve its goals?
  • How can success in the Greater San Marcos Area be measured on an ongoing basis?

None of these questions deal with the impact of economic development on neighborhoods. The entire premise of the study is that economic development is a good thing that should be encouraged, supported, and funded (in part, at least) by the public. It assumes a lot. For example, it assumes that the San Marcos area has a unique economic development niche, a proposition that it has no intention of questioning. It doesn’t think to ask, “Should area leaders organize and market to support economic development?” The project narrative doesn’t explain what “organizing and marketing to support economic development” means.

The survey has technical flaws. The number 1 is the most positive response in one part of the survey and is the most negative response in other parts. Many questions asked require professional knowledge to answer accurately, such as is the water and sewer capacity adequate to support growth, or is there enough class A office space available. These are not questions the average San Marcos resident will be able to answer.

Nowhere in the survey are there questions about what conditions developers should meet to receive taxpayers’ funds. Nowhere are there questions about living-wage jobs. Nowhere are there questions about whether the citizens favor helping local development over exported development. Apparently, these issues are not on the table.

In addition to the online questionnaires, the project will conduct “up to 12 personal interviews with key public and private leaders and 6 focus groups with 15-20 people per group.” The answers derived from this part of the process will depend on what 102 to 132 people are chosen to participate. You can be sure that they will not include anyone who is not on the chamber of commerce bandwagon.

Other parts of the project will delve into analysis of data about characteristics of the community, its workforce, its businesses, and its educational systems. But the primary input from San Marcos residents will come from the “Community Survey.” As the project director said, “Hospitals, retail and Texas State University are all stake holders in this new planning process.” No mention of neighborhoods, or workers, or families as having a stake in this decision-making.

The current city Master Plan describes actually putting the citizens in charge of deciding what San Marcos should look like in the future: “A master plan developed by the citizens can serve as a community consensus regarding the long-range vision of the city that its citizens desire. This is perhaps the most important reason of all to plan. In face of constant change, a master plan allows the people of a city to determine a vision of what the community wants to be and how it wants to look in the future. The master plan puts the fate of the city in the hands of the citizens and gives them the right to decide their own future. In essence, a master plan is choice instead of chance.”

This new economic development plan now being devised gives the choice to the chambers of commerce, and the people don’t have a chance when it comes to deciding what San Marcos should look like. Those decisions will be made mostly by a handful of local business promoters, not a significant number of our citizens. If you don’t access the internet, you can’t complete the survey. But even if you complete the survey, you will not be asked the kind of comprehensive questions that were dealt with in the master planning process. The chamber leaders don’t care what happens to your neighborhood. All they care about is devising a plan from which they can benefit financially. The needs of families and neighborhoods are barely touched on in this economic planning process.

But this is par for the course with this city council, dominated by a mayor who must have her way when it comes to doling out public money to any project that strikes her fancy. Last November, at a semi-public meeting (that is, it was not publicly announced, but anyone could attend) about a nonsensical giveaway of public funds, the mayor promised to get me some information about the sales taxes previously generated by the stores that moved from Springtown to the new Stone Creek development.

She had forgotten to bring her entire file on the new project with her, so she didn’t have the information I had requested at the meeting. I’m still waiting for that information. I guess six months is not enough time for her to respond as she promised to do: To let me — and you — know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenues she and a majority of the council decided to pay to this prettier-than-Springtown retail development that was going to be built with or without help from the taxpayers.

The city council and the planning & zoning commission, which the council appoints, regularly disparages the city’s master plan by ignoring many of its policies, not the least of which are “The City shall work to preserve the community’s small town atmosphere by carefully controlling the location and quality of new growth” and “The City shall promote community-based economic development in harmony with San Marcos’ high quality of life.”

So far as I can tell, the integrity of our neighborhoods means little to the council and nearly its entire economic development focus is not on “community-based economic development,” but on attracting hotel magnates from afar and upscale, national retail stores.

This Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy now underway seems aimed more at overturning the decisions of our citizens in favor of the opinions of the business community. It is designed to dishonor the broad-based, thorough planning process that became the city’s master plan a few years ago.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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7 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: How the mayor gets the economic development answers she wants

  1. Beautifully said, Lamar.
    I have never understood why someone would want to turn our incredibly nice small town into a big city, then act like they are doing us a favor by doing it! This must be a micro-view of how the Native Americans felt.
    Any local tax money spent on economic development should only go to local people.
    Thanks, Lamar, for being a voice of sanity in an insane world.

  2. Lamar, The prettier than Springtown, going to be built anyway, shopping center received $5 million not hundreds of thousands of our tax money

  3. Lamar, while you’re digging around, I would be curious what incentives New Braunfels gave Target and JCP for the new stores they built south of us on IH35, as well as what incentives Kyle had to give Kohl’s for the new store a few miles north of us.

    It would be great to get some real jobs in San Marcos, but I’d settle for something that raised the median income (a paltry $31k, compared to $47k for Texas) a couple of dollars at this point. Most of the new jobs I see appear to be lowering it.

    $31,555 per year works out to $15.14 per hour. Any business coming to town with average pay at or below that level is not worth any economic incentives, in my opinion.

  4. I agree about the wages issue, which is why I’ve written about using a “living wage” – around $17 per hour for San Marcos – as a yardstick for incentives.

  5. Its all very troubling. We have a fox in the henhouse.
    Let’s support community-based small businesses instead of sending our money out of town. Why are we giving up future sales tax revenue to corporations and not investing in our own? I’m looking forward to the next election. If the powers at be don’t like the results of the survey, they will just toss it out – just like the last 2 community-perception data-gathering sessions. What a joke. Are we ready for a recall election?

  6. Those with a vested interest in uncontrolled growth have the money and backing to run for office. They win. They control. It’s the ugly side of democracy.

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