Packaging and selling the metropolitan region

April 15, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

CAN U.S. citistate regions polarized into growing, prospering suburbs and shriveling center cities compete nationally and globally?

The question, belatedly, is making its way onto agendas of the states. New laws in Virginia and Minnesota, plus proposed reforms in Pennsylvania, suggest that after decades of blithe neglect while urban areas divided into stark extremes of income, race and public safety -- a new day may be dawning.

The Virginia Legislature has just passed, by strong majorities, state incentive grants to encourage localities to consolidate services, share taxes on joint economic-development projects and plan collaboratively across city-county lines.

The premise, says Hampton Mayor James Eason: ''You can't do it for yourself. It's the region that has to sell itself.''

The fiscal carrots Virginia's General Assembly approved are a fraction of the $200 million supporters had hoped for. But for one of America's most conservative states, the new measures are a momentous step.

The Virginia Chamber of Commerce, prompted by the mayors of Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke, created the Urban Partnership, which pushed for the new legislation. Former Republican Gov. Linwood Holton helped shepherd the bills through.

Why is business interested? ''Our inner cities of Virginia are facing humongous fiscal distress,'' says James F. Babcock, chairman of First Virginia Bank of Tidewater.

Core attractions

Corporations looking for sites, David Lerman reports in the Daily Press in Newport News-Hampton, want to be near strong, core (( cities that offer cultural amenities, even if they select offices in outlying suburbs.

The peril of letting things drift is that Virginia's central cities, like counterparts coast to coast, will turn increasingly into crucibles of the uneducated, disadvantaged, and non-English speaking.

Minnesota's breakthrough the ''Metropolitan Livable Communities Act'' -- provides a national model for regional response to the challenges of affordable housing and cleaning up polluted lands.

Fertile crescents

Four years ago, State Rep. Myron Orfield, a Democrat, started using colorful computer maps to show a ''fertile crescent'' of prosperous suburbs drawing jobs and development. The victims, said, were both central cities and older working-class suburbs. But the job-gaining suburbs, he alleged, weren't responding much to demands for moderate-income housing for the lower-paid workers.

Mr. Orfield's bills penalizing localities that failed to change their zoning, for example -- fell victim to vetoes by Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. But last year a bipartisan coalition fashioned a compromise. Now Twin Cities suburbs and cities that agree to push affordable housing are entitled to share in a fund ($12 million the first year) they can use one of three ways -- to subsidize affordable housing, to underwrite mixed-use, transit-oriented development, or to clean up ''brownfield'' waste sites for job-generating projects.

Housing accords

The Metropolitan Council, appointed by the governor, is presently negotiating housing agreements with 97 Twin Cities-area localities to expand housing.

Mr. Orfield calls the process too weak and optional. Metropolitan Council Chairman Curtis Johnson says it's as far as politics now permits. In time, he adds, it may ''make a profound difference in producing affordable housing opportunities across an entire citistate region.''

Pennsylvania's deep city-suburban divisions are exacerbated by the independence and power of 2,733 local governments, many microscopically small, each with its own revenue base -- mostly property taxes -- to finance municipal functions and schools.

Incredible disparities have resulted. In Berks County, for example, taxes on a home in the city of Reading are 10 times

those on an equivalent house in the suburbs. The burden is close to a municipal death warrant for embattled Reading with its elderly white and young Latino residents.

The Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities believes it has a formula for relief. It would permit counties to add another penny onto the state sales tax. The new revenue would be shared, recognizing the heavy tax burden and tax-exempt property the cities bear.

The one-cent sales tax add-on, already approved for Allegheny County, is relieving fiscal pressure on Pittsburgh -- providing, for example, support for museums, zoos and orchestras serving the entire region. This autumn the League of Cities plans a full-scale campaign for legislative approval of a similar piggyback tax for counties surrounding Reading and about 50 smaller Keystone State cities.

Modest starts

The Virginia, Minnesota and Pennsylvania efforts are modest starts to the massive equity reforms all states owe their cities and distressed older suburbs.

These aren't just good-hearted shifts in state policy. As business leaders are recognizing, they're essential to assure competitive metropolitan economies. And it's metro economies that undergird states' entire budgets and futures.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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