A more sustainable alternative to the BayWalk bailout

The Real Reasons for BayWalk’s Failure: Try Googling “Bankrupt Malls in U.S.”

Many supporters of the bailout blame “rabble rousing” protestors,“lawless youth” and crime for the failure of BayWalk. The reality is BayWalk started to fail when the overall economy started to fail. The complex in fact joins a parade of failed bankrupt and foreclosed malls and commercial property around Florida and the country. If you Google “failed and bankrupt commercial properties & malls in U.S.,” you’ll come up with an historic list of failures of the largest commercial real estate and mall ventures in the country. Just like poor people did not cause the world’s economic collapse from predatory sub-prime lending, "rabble rousing" protestors and “lawless youths” did not bring down Baywalk.

In fact, BayWalk’s biggest problem is that it courted high-end tenants to cater to upper-income residents who were supposed to move into nearby condos that never materialized because of the downturn.

So what’s the more sustainable path? First we need to understand the real nature of the problem. One big reason for our failed economy is that local communities sent their money to large, predatory corporations whose profits relied on the Ponzi scheme of fake Wall Street wealth creation.  As I have documented before on the Creative Loafing Green site, 72 cents of every dollar spent at a locally owned business stays in the community – whereas only 42 cents of money spent at nationally owned chain is circulated in the community. While some BayWalk tenants may be locally owned, most are not, and certainly not Wells Fargo Bank. In fact Wells Fargo was one of the largest writers of sub-prime mortgages, and is being sued by several cities in the U.S. for predatory loan practices against Black and Hispanic communities.

A Movement by People, Not Politicians, Offers a Local, Sustainable Economic Alternative

Interestingly, while the city council has said little about alternative uses for the $700,000, the most visible public opponent of the bailout, the Uhuru movement, today released its own alternative economic development plan. In contrast to the “Wall Street Bailout” philosophy of many on the city council, the Uhuru movement has offered a sustainable, locally-based economic development program that promotes community economic development where the effects of the economic downturn are most dire in St. Petersburg, in the predominantly black Midtown community.

According to Chimurega Waller, president of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, the Uhurus’ program is optimistic and “sees the potential for African commerce.”  The program establishes an Economic Development and Community Commerce Zone (EDCC) from 3rd Street and 49th Street between Central Avenue and 30th Avenue, where residents get business loans and mini-grants from the city. The program intends to create at least 10 “African business” per year, as the Uhurus put it. Other policies in the “African Community Economic Development Plan” include:

-Revising St. Petersburg's roadside vending ordinance “to allow African people to vend at street corners and other areas. The permits to vend process must be made simple and cost effective for the vendor.” Also, city "mini-grants" for roadside vendors for equipment purchase and supplies.

-Grants and loans for low-income residents within the EDCC

-Co-operative venture-capital, start-up grants for “African start-up companies that are projected to have five or more residents of the EDCC and members of the traditionally underrepresented African community as business persons”

-Business improvement loans to existing “African businesses who require upgrades to their operations via equipment, training, or other service”

-City loans and grants for “African technical and manufacturing businesses”

-“African business tracking system where the city must maintain and report statistics on African businesses on a yearly basis…”

-Unlike the city’s BayWalk bailout proposal, the Uhuru’s program focuses on not just a few wealthy businesses interests but help for those who are now underrepresented and who can benefit most from economic development.

The Uhuru’s alternative program will expand the tax base in the city, lower unemployment and poverty in Midtown, reduce crime that stems from economic desperation, and reduce conflict that stems from Police-containment policies.

It’s an economic program that is more local, more community-based, and more equitable, and, to top it off,  the city wouldn’t have to give away one single sidewalk. The Uhuru proposal is far more sustainable than anything we’ve seen from the elected leadership of the City of St. Petersburg.

The City Council of St. Petersburg will make a decision this Thursday that will signal what path the city is taking for the future. The council will vote on spending nearly $700,000 in taxpayer money for more police and special projects for the owners of BayWalk, including privatization of the sidewalk outside the mall entrance.  BayWalk's ownership, whose controlling interest is held by Wells Fargo Bank, said without the subsidy and the sidewalk, they cannot possibly turn around the failing entertainment complex.

From the standpoint of public policy that promotes sustainable economics, the council’s choice is clear, I think. Will it continue a worn-out policy of subsidies to out-of-town corporations and mainly profit the wealthy few? Or will it adopt an enlightened, sustainable public policy that promotes economic development of all local residents, in every community, not just the privileged ones?

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