Democracy is dead in Allentown.
Allentown, Urban Growth Regime
Oh sure, the trappings still exist, but democracy in the Queen City has been replaced by something more nefarious. It's an urban growth regime in which politicians and select members of the business community co-opt each other, not for the benefit of the community, but to advance their own business interests.
"I've never seen so many democrats fighting so hard to make republican developers rich," notes one of my astute readers. That's what happens in an urban growth regime.
They like the term "public - private partnerships." I prefer to call it what it is - an oligarchy. It's Crony Capitalism. An urban growth regime. A consortium of select real estate developers, attorneys, engineers, consultants and other City vendors whose membership can be determined by looking at the 87-page report of $251,915 in campaign contributions received by Mayor Pawlowski in 2011, a non-election year.
Is it any wonder I call him King Edwin?
It's been going on in Allentown for years. Behind the curtains is the secretive Lehigh Valley Partnership, a body of unelected bluebloods. They set municipal policy and support the politicians who do their bidding. They control LVEDC, CACLV and RenewLV. Their central theme, over the past twenty years, has been the revitalization and growth of Allentown.
The primary justification for real estate growth in Allentown is that it will raise assessments and tax revenue. Growth is good. But this total emphasis on adding Johnny Mananas and Brew Works ignores most of the City's population. Class separation results, De Facto segregation occurs. The poor, most of them minorities, are ignored or provided substandard jobs. Crime increases. Educational opportunities decrease. The City becomes unsafe.
Such is Allentown.
Despite all the many types of revitalization and attempts at urban growth over the years, per capita income is just $16,917 per year. 27% of the City's population struggles below the poverty level. It's at 42% among Hispanics.
Donovan Joins the Urban Growth Regime
Michael Donovan knows these things, better than most. He's devoted a career to studying urban growth regimes.
When he joined Allentown City Council, he became a part of Allentown's urban growth regime. After four frustrating years of trying to effect change from within, he's had enough. ... At least for now.
Donovan's first experience with the urban growth regime occurred in late 2005, when he served on Mayor Pawlowski's transition team, and focused on economic development. Their strategy for Allentown's poor? "We need to bus 'em out of town," remarked one teammate. They were intent on continuing to do what they've been doing for years - build their way out of the mess.
In fact, that's the whole point of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ). Donovan had warned Pawlowski, "I don't want 50 rich white guys being the only beneficiaries." But that's exactly what happened. It will convert J.B. Reilly From millionaire to billionaire. It will make Lee Butz and Joe Topper even more wealthy.
But will it help the quarter of the City's population, struggling below the poverty level?
Pawlowski's "Trickle Down" Economics
"A rising tide lifts all boats," assures Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, borrowing the words of President Kennedy. But this "rising tide" argument is really nothing other than the trickle down economics that progressives all supposedly eschew. And empirically, the urban growth regime has continually failed in the Queen City.
According to Donovan, "Nobody is thinking about the population of Allentown, but the wallets of private developers."
Pawlowski's Penchant For Secrecy Hurts NIZ Process
When Pawlowski quoted JFK's remarks about rising tides, he might have looked at what Kennedy had to say about government secrecy.
The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.Donovan saw this secrecy first hand.
In addition to serving on City Council, Donovan was named to the Allentown Economic Development Corporation (AEDC). He was constantly stymied in his efforts to see feasibility and marketing plans for the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, which was already receiving heavy infusions of cash.
In fact, he had no idea of J.B. Reilly's involvement as the major developer until July or August of last year.
Donovan is by no means alone.
The NIZ legislation (authored by J.B. Reilly's attorney for Senator Pat Browne) was slipped into a 2009 budget package and voted on without any real knowledge of its details. Township officials were never informed their EIT would be used to finance development projects in Allentown. They have since been stonewalled in their attempts to get information concerning the impact of lost EIT revenue on their own bottom lines. In fact, their lawyers have recently suggested this refusal to share financials "is both disturbing and in bad faith."
Morning Call columnist Bill White acknowledges these concerns, but then goes on to say, "[T]hat hardly warrants deep-sixing this entire project."
Really? I'd argue that anyone who believes in democracy or open and accountable government should pull the plug now, especially before $40 million becomes $500 million.
When City officials finally decided to share some details with Donovan in October, he was appalled by the lack of financial information. "I wouldn't a student a decent grade on what I saw," he told me.
But by that time, Donovan could see he had worn out his welcome at AEDC, and was battling a serious illness. He had become a voice in the wilderness.
How a NIZ Could Work
According to Donovan a NIZ could work, done right. He points out it's called a "neighborhood" improvement zone, and should be structured in a way that actually achieves that goal, instead of hurting townships or making rich developers even richer.
Should an Arena Be the Anchor?
You need to identify an anchor, claims Donovan. Something that attracts people. But should that be an arena?
According to Justice and the American Metropolis, the analytic findings are nearly unanimous "that investment in sports produces neither economic development nor neighborhood improvement. ... Planning consultants who promote particular kinds of investments, especially convention centers and sports venues, bolster the predilections of local officials seeking the glory of bringing in a team or cutting the ribbon before the new convention facility."
Donovan tells me there "was excessive focus on the arena, rather than looking at the bigger picture of what was possible."
A Real Community Benefit Agreement
After identifying an anchor, you need to identify what you consider Allentown's most serious problems. It could be the crime, the lack of educational resources, the poor housing stock. Use money to address these shortcomings. Hire more police. Develop affordable housing programs.
Donovan would like to see a vo-tech in Allentown, along the riverfront. "You can't offshore the repair of trucks," he told me, noting that many young men and women could benefit from that kind of training.
He even suggested a veteran overlay zoning district, which could attract federal money.
Where would these commitments be memorialized? In a Community Benefit Agreement.
Donovan has seen a draft of the Community Benefit Agreement being worked on for Allentown's NIZ, which merely imposes the same old tired construction quotas that have failed to solve a single societal problem in the past. It makes no real commitment to the neighborhood that is supposedly being benefited by the NIZ.
He spoke of a community benefit agreement in Pittsburgh, providing for a grocery store, employment center, multi-purpose center and family-sustaining jobs.
Allentown's Real Problem
Allentown is not its NIZ, or its poverty, or its poor education, or even its crime. Its real problem is that it is no longer a democratic form of government. It's a very selective oligarchy - an urban growth regime in which cronies masquerade as capitalists. Only friends of the King will see any development opportunities or business.
The few benefit at the expense of the many. And with the NIZ, the few will benefit at the expense of the many who live in the townships and other cities throughout the state.
Long live the King!
Statistical data concerning Allentown can also be found in LVPC's "Lehigh Valley Profile and Trends" (June 2011).
The references to Justice and the American Metropolis are contained on pp. 160 and 165.