The Wall Builders

Last week I commented on the kerfuffle between a City Council Member and Woodward. The Coloradoan editorialized about the issue in this past Sunday’s paper and today’s issue has a soapbox and letter to the editor from residents taking the Council Member to task.

This week I want to continue on this topic but broaden it out. While the focus has been on how one elected official has been acting towards one company, this problem is bigger than both of them.

Fort Collins by almost any measure is a wonderful place. I don’t want to go all chamber of commerce on you, so I’ll leave it at that and spare you the details! (However, if you want to peruse some of the community’s rankings, you can find them here!)

That said, when the Council Member let his mask slip he did us all a favor by openly revealing to the public at-large his raw political ambitions and guiding philosophy. While this doesn’t fully capture it, a short description is that he and his fellow travelers are anti-business, anti-economy, anti-population growth and pro-accumulation of as much power as they can acquire.

Most residents are so focused on making a living and raising their families these political machinations never hit their radar screens. That is until there’s an overreach like when the City Council tried to take over the trash haulers a few years ago, when they tried to impose a fee on plastic bags and now when one of them is openly bullying a longstanding, beloved and important local employer.      

Many businesses, on the other hand, have a different vantage point, especially those trying to build or expand. Sadly, the treatment directed towards Woodward is not all that unusual. The difference this time is that the company pushed back.

You might wonder “Why would an elected city official want to discourage local companies from growing and creating jobs?” The answer he (and his allies) gives is that he opposes ‘corporate welfare’ and he believes ‘growth should pay its own way.’

My theory is that it’s part of the larger wall building process to keep people out of Fort Collins. Never mind that most of the wall-builders moved here from other places! Here are six ways he / they go about building walls.

First, encircle the community with open lands and community separators. This has been popular with the public. It maintains the open character of a western community and provides close-in recreation opportunities and wildlife habitat. It isn’t free, however, and it does dramatically impact the cost of housing.

Second, create a firm growth management boundary (wall). As a community, it’s a declaration that we are going to forever remain a mid-sized city. Twelve, thirteen years ago several council members and community activists declared that I-25 was a firm line that we would not cross. How has it worked out for us have Costco and Walmart in Timnath instead of land that should have been annexed into Fort Collins? Sometimes the wall builders trip up.

Third, build a wall of fees. Did you know that Fort Collins has the second highest fees on commercial development in the state? An example of how we have to work around that is the so-called $23M incentive package given to Woodward to expand in Fort Collins. No, no, no! City taxpayers are not giving money to Woodward. Most of that money is the waiver of fees that should have never been charged in the first place. Sticking with my wall analogy, the city government built a wall then had to take down several rows of bricks to allow a company that had been here for 3 generations to be able to stay. In essence, the Woodward package is a sort of rebate on an excessive overcharge.

Fourth, build a wall of regulations. Every study and plan adopted by the city government over the last 25 years has been used by the Council Member and his allies to add layer upon layer of new requirements and restrictions on construction, development and business. 

Fifth, related to the item above is the development review process. It routinely takes 18 months for projects to get through the maze of city government. A key strategy is to make the process slow and expensive.

Finally, the sixth wall is the no-jobs wall. This is the one being used by the Council Member relative to Woodward. The thinking is something like this: If only those rascally companies wouldn’t expand and create jobs, we could keep people from moving here. While he / his allies can get away with some of the other more hidden wall building strategies, this one is a political minefield. The public won’t put up with someone openly playing politics with their jobs and the health of the local economy.

None of above is meant to be negative. On the contrary, I’m quite bullish on future of Fort Collins. It’s just that the Council Member’s ham-handed treatment of the community’s leading company was a teachable moment. It’s a chance to put in context a story of the day with the underlying political agenda that’s afoot.