Waiting for Godot…or some unicorn developer…
How many times have you seen local elected officials recruiting a large scale developer from out of town to come and build some sort of catalytic project to help spur redevelopment? These kinds of recruiting efforts typically involve some free or deeply discounted land, a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) deal, construction of off-site infrastructure, structured parking, and maybe some direct investment in the developer’s project. Does this ever work? By necessity, the scale of these projects and the expectations that come with them are really large. Think about it. The Unicorn Developer From Out of Town will probably have to travel past 4 or 5 perfectly good opportunities in markets they already understand to get to your town (where they don’t know a single plumber, banker, or building inspector).
Are you pinning the hopes of your community’s future upon somebody that is not coming? If they do show up, consider the scale of their likely project. It will need to be big enough to justify the risk of building in a new place. Consider what happens after the project is completed? Will it spur other investment? Will that investment need similar levels of subsidy? I think this kind of enterprise is a naive long shot at best.
The faculty of the Incremental Development Alliance (incDev) has grown from 5 people to 12 since we started training folks in August of 2015. The purpose of the non-profit is to cultivate 1,000 new small scale developers and the communities that support them.
At one time or another, everyone on the faculty has been asked to pick up stakes and come develop in someone else’s town. Seeing case studies of incremental projects that fit into the surrounding neighborhood, it is reasonable that they would ask for the same in their town. But that’s not how it should work. Small scale, incremental development is an intensely local line of work. It take time to acquire the local know how and relationships needed to do it well. You should not count on somebody coming to fix your neighborhood or your town.
It is time for towns to grow and support their own small developers. If you find yourself looking at a vacant lot or distressed building in your neighborhood, saying “Somebody aught to…” That somebody might be you. You could become the small developer your town needs. You care about your place. That’s the first requirement for a small developer. All the rest is learnable. Come and join us. Add new know how and relationships to your hustle and make something happen in a place that needs you.
Chances are, nobody else is coming.