Are Governor Gina Raimondo, Mayor Jorge Elorza, and the leaders of the General Assembly and Providence City Council afflicted with Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS)?
The Web site PassionForBusiness.com says you have SOS if “a new idea captures your imagination and attention in such a way that you get distracted from the bigger picture and go off in tangents instead of remaining focused on the goal.”
The shiny objects currently dominating city and state politics are, of course, the streetcar and the stadium. Proponents claim they would be great investments, each bringing jobs and economic development to the city and state, while opponents claim they will waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to no good end.
In the next few months our leaders will have to decide if they’re being blinded by shiny hype or offered real game-changing opportunities that come at reasonable costs.
All of this is playing out in the shadow of the 38 Studios debacle, which suggests to some people that we should be extra careful when committing taxpayer dollars over decades without voter approval, and to others that we should not hunker in a bunker letting opportunities pass us by because of one bad experience.
Since the true results of both projects wouldn’t be known for many years, there’s a temptation for politicians to rush to the shovels, creating construction jobs now and having literally shiny objects ready for display at re-election time.
Let’s hope they take a longer view, based on the definition of SOS and some hard-nosed, independent financial thinking. The projects have significant differences, but similar principles can guide the decisions.
What’s the big picture? Both city and state governments are financially strapped, with citizens who are looking to them for solutions to stagnant economies and poor job prospects, and they want it done without cutting services or raising taxes. Both situations are ripe for shiny objects.
Is it realistic to expect that the proposed projects will make significant contributions to meeting key goals? Will their results justify the costs?
Studies and statistics presented by proponents say both projects will help improve the city and state economies, but in both cases the arguments were created by consultants whose business goal is to help projects get funded. The city and state should both insist on and pay for qualified independent assessments before proceeding.
Are these projects the best use of resources to meet key goals?
We have been told for years that the 195 land offers the state’s best hope for bringing in new companies with high paying knowledge and manufacturing jobs. Does a stadium support that effort or represent a failure to keep our eye on the ball?
Does the current proposal ask for too much from the public in terms of cash, tax relief, and property ownership? We should be less concerned with how much profit the team owners might make (that is, after all, their business), but more concerned with whether the state and city are getting a fair deal.
By opening with a proposal that is wildly skewed to their benefit, the owners have attempted to move the goalposts out to an extreme point. They could be hoping that the state counters with something in the middle, resulting in a “compromise” deal that’s really about 75% in the owners’ favor. If, on the other hand, the state counters will a proposal equally far to the other extreme, we could end up with something fair.
But we should only do this if we truly believe the stadium is worthwhile and not a cop-out for getting something — anything — built on the 195 land.
Will a streetcar running in the midst of car and truck traffic make transportation any better? Will having permanent tracks in the streets convince developers to put up 3.6 million square feet of new construction (equivalent to ten Superman buildings) along the 1.6 mile route? Does experience in other cities support the idea that streetcars, by themselves, cause this level of economic development? At more than $62 million per mile, how many of the suggested streetcar extensions (East Side, South Side, West Side) could the city afford?
Are there better ways to spend $100 million to achieve better transportation and economic development?
Should these high cost, multi-decade projects be committed without voter approval?
Note use of the word “should”; if I had written “could” the answer would clearly be, “yes.” Through various machinations, the law allows both city and state to get around the requirement for voter approval of capital expense borrowing. But in both the stadium and streetcar proposals, the money will nonetheless come from us, the taxpayers, for decades. It will be a commitment that future City Councils and General Assemblies cannot change, a hole in their budgets every single year as they grapple with other needs.
The power to do something implies the power not to do it.
Our leaders might ask themselves if it’s likely that either of these projects would pass a referendum: in Providence on the streetcar, statewide on the stadium proposal. How long did it take you to answer that one?
If the voters can’t see the shine, should their leaders force the objects, and the bill, on them?