This afternoon I went to City Hall to testify in front of the Transportation Committee about whether or not Cincinnati should study a second phase of the streetcar in order to get it up the hill to the hospitals and universities. Pro-streetcar, anti-streetcar, everybody in the room agreed on one thing: we cannot afford to waste taxpayer dollars and every project should be carefully monitored.
During her comments, Yvette Simpson reminded us of Council’s role as “stewards” of public funds. I shifted the emphasis somewhat when it was my turn to talk. “You said, you are stewards. But you’re really investors,” I told the members of the committee.
Every single vote on big, expensive projects that we will have to live with for generations is an assumption about what life in Cincinnati is going to look like 10, 20, or 30 years from now. Which is really hard to do. How does anybody predict a world that is changing as quickly as ours? But guessing wrong cripples cities for decades.
During a recent discussion with a high-ranking city administrator about the number of city-financed parking garages we have been building, he assured me, “People say garages are goldmines.”
I used to earn my living as an investment adviser and the word “goldmine” always signaled imminent disaster. Tulip bulbs or tech stocks, didn’t matter. Whenever the crowd decides you can’t loose, ugly times are just around the bend.
Bad investors assume life won’t change. If revenue from parking garages has always covered the outstanding debt service on the bonds we issue to build them, it always will. If one casino made money, a dozen more will always do the same. If retail succeeded on Fourth St. before, the right stores will make it happen again.
City Council Members: please don’t bet our future on studies paid-for by the developers who make money building these projects. When you invest for the next thirty-years (and especially when you borrow the money to do it) don’t get us stuck in some Baby-Boomer version of the Cincinnati Dream. Figure out what the Cool Kids want. Here’s where I see the biggest changes between parents and their grown children these days:.
1. Cool Kids do not buy as much stuff as their parents did. When they do shop, they often prefer to do it on-line instead of at the mall.
2. Cool Kids want to live in the city. where they can walk to restaurants and craft breweries, meet their friends, and eat out a lot of their meals. They wait longer to get married and start families.
3. Cool Kids ride bikes, drive fewer miles, own fewer cars, take Uber and Lyft and can’t wait until self-driving vehicles become the norm by 2035.
4. Cool Kids care about the environment.
5. Cool Kids don’t expect to work for the same big company for their entire careers. They don’t like office towers or corporate campuses. They’re risk takers and success is equated with owning their own business. We have already seen the peak of the big corporation as the primary driver of the American economy.
6. Cool Kids like to DIY: they repair their own bikes, rehab houses, and knit.
7. Cool Kids are policy wonks with great confidence in their ability to research complex subjects on the internet and use technology to communicate information. They do not passively absorb anything. They have their own ideas. When they do eventually get involved in local government in a big way, it will be on a far grander scale than checking off a box on a ballot once a year. Be forewarned. Cool Kids are going to reinvent how we do government.
oh, yeah – and
8. Cool kids like streetcars. While “responsible” taxpayers wring their hands about the folly of that “trolley” – the problems that can wreck havoc on this city are the ones that nobody sees yet. What we should probably worry about are all those parking garages we’ve built with Tax-Increment-Financing money we borrowed for 30 years, sure it was a goldmine and there was no such thing as too much parking.