Finding strength through discomfort

The City Wire editorial

Chuck Marohn’s recent three-hour presentation delivered to more than 160 Arkansas elected and development officials – including between 15 and 20 such persons from the Fort Smith-Greenwood-Van Buren area – was a blunt indictment of everything we thought we knew about the relationship between municipal finances, policies and economic development.

For some it must have been as if they were being told for the first time that the Earth was not flat. With each sentence and example, it was as if Marohn was criticizing the development policies and municipal decisions in and around Fort Smith. He even panned the practice of school districts building new facilities on the outskirts of town merely to chase cheap land and have enough of it for a football field.

It would have been easy to be offended or excited at his precisely targeted critiques, except that Marohn’s notes were specific to the Fort Smith area only because the Fort Smith area is just one of thousands – if not more – U.S. municipalities doing things the wrong way. Or at least the wrong way according to Marohn’s “Strong Towns” lecture that suggests many cities are on a financially unsustainable path.

“Strong Towns” is a concept founded and promoted by Marohn. His work is focused on helping city’s improve their budgets, budgeting process, bolster local tax bases, reduce taxpayer burdens, promote economic diversity and help community leaders “plan for long-term viability.” The official title of the workshop is, “Strong Towns: The Intersection of Land Use, Transportation, and Financial Resilience.”

The City Wire encouraged Fort Smith and Sebastian County officials to attend. There were at least eight officials from Fort Smith. We are unsure if anyone attended representing Sebastian County.

Back in the Fort Smith area, the post-Marohn discussions on The City Wire, Facebook and via e-mails took a wrong turn. The comments began to pit one side against another; those for a new school, and those against; those who believe Chaffee Crossing is the answer to our economic development woes, and those who believe we’d invested too many tax dollars at Chaffee Crossing; those who say Marohn’s views don’t work in Fort Smith because the city is landlocked, and those who believe otherwise; those who fault urban sprawl and those who say urban sprawl is a function of a free market.

Any division over a new approach would be unfortunate. Marohn delivered some incredible insights that should make any thinking person uncomfortable with the status quo – especially the part where he mocked cities that spend time and money on “visioning” studies. But it would be folly to assume we should fully adopt a new Marohn orthodoxy.

Any broad discussion of urban sprawl deflects from the point Marohn was trying to make, which is that taxpayer support of private development and/or public infrastructure, whether across the street or outside a territorial jurisdiction, receive a rational review to determine the relationship between upfront benefits and future ancillary impacts on a municipal budget.

Indeed, Chaffee Crossing is part of the city, but that does not automatically justify public infrastructure in the area. Nor does the distance from the downtown or a “core” city area – and we’ve yet to define a “core” area – necessarily disqualify public investment.

As to the landlocked note, the Fort Smith map clearly shows a city bounded to the west, north and parts of the east with a river and state border. But the city is not landlocked in the sense that every section of land is spoken for – so to speak – prior to reaching what is perceived the breakout area to the south and southeast. There are hundreds of acres, especially on the north side of the city, that are either undeveloped or underdeveloped.

It was to this point on which Marohn suggested cities must become more innovative and aggressive with respect to incentivizing development. His point is that such areas already have the cost of infrastructure and public services built in; which is to say that water and sewer improvements, police and fire service, etc., would be much cheaper to provide and maintain than new developments in Chaffee Crossing or beyond the south Fort Smith border.

As to a new Fort Smith high school, there are, in our opinion, questions requiring much more analysis and answers before we even get to the point of where a new school should be located.

To be sure, it’s not a matter of one part of the region or the city of Fort Smith being a friend or an enemy. It’s math. It’s short-term and long-term budgetary math. It’s math that allows us to avoid emotion resulting in a decision that may be popular and easy on the front end, but costly and potentially cumbersome for future residents and leaders.

Underneath the existing fabric we see in the Fort Smith area, The City Wire is convinced lies several strong towns. We remain hopeful – some have said naively so – that strong leadership will emerge to uncover the strength by fostering collaboration and ensuring that Logic can withstand Loud.