The Wrong Way to Revitalize a City

ALEC’s scheme to take the community out of community development.

Rachel M. Cohen

Baltimore workers rally for fair urban development near the Horseshoe Casino construction site on April 20, 2013.

The pro-cor­po­rate Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC) has come up with yet anoth­er strat­e­gy to bol­ster the pow­er of big busi­ness. Repub­li­can law­mak­ers in Michi­gan plan to intro­duce an ALEC-backed bill that would ban com­mu­ni­ty ben­e­fits agree­ments” (CBAs), one of the few options local activists have to fight for equi­table devel­op­ment. A CBA is a con­tract between com­mu­ni­ty groups and devel­op­ers of pub­licly sub­si­dized projects. In exchange for com­mu­ni­ty sup­port, a devel­op­er might agree to offer qual­i­ty jobs, liv­ing wages, afford­able hous­ing or envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions. ALEC’s CBA ban, which specif­i­cal­ly pro­hibits a local min­i­mum wage, would be unprecedented.

With less emphasis on retail and a greater commitment to local needs like good jobs, Buffalo’s Inner Harbor—in theory—will look quite different from Baltimore’s.

The con­trast­ing sto­ries of Bal­ti­more and Buf­fa­lo, New York, two eco­nom­i­cal­ly depressed cities that launched ambi­tious devel­op­ment plans, show what hap­pens to work­ers and the poor when safe­guards like CBAs are – and aren’t – in place.

The Inner Har­bor myth

Bal­ti­more was one of the first U.S. cities to rebrand itself as a tourist and enter­tain­ment hotspot in response to the painful post-war impact of dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and white flight. Begin­ning in the 1950s, Bal­ti­more poured mil­lions of dol­lars, through tax breaks and sub­si­dies, into build­ing up its Inner Har­bor enter­tain­ment dis­trict and oth­er attrac­tions. By the ear­ly 1980s, these projects were bring­ing more than 18 mil­lion vis­i­tors to the city annu­al­ly, lead­ing many politi­cians and pun­dits to pro­claim that Bal­ti­more was in the midst of a ter­rif­ic revival.

But it was nev­er an equi­table one. Between 1959 and 1995, Bal­ti­more lost 75 per­cent of its indus­tri­al jobs, and by 2008, the city had lost a third of its pop­u­la­tion. Despite the tall, shiny build­ings and bustling shop­ping cen­ters down­town, blight and aban­don­ment plague many cor­ners of Charm City. As anthro­pol­o­gy pro­fes­sor David Har­vey wrote in 1992, If peo­ple could live on images alone, Baltimore’s pop­u­lace would have been rich indeed.” Instead, in 2012, more than 25 per­cent of the city lived in pover­ty, includ­ing 37 per­cent of the city’s chil­dren.

Mean­while, the Inner Har­bor is still draw­ing 14 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year and remains a point of pride for local lead­ers. In 2013, the city released plans to build up the Har­bor even more over the next few decades. Any­thing that’s great for tourists is great for locals,” Tom Noo­nan, CEO of Vis­it Bal­ti­more, told the Bal­ti­more Busi­ness Journal.

The approx­i­mate­ly 1,500 restau­rant and retail work­ers at the Inner Har­bor might dis­agree. In 2011, Unit­ed Work­ers – a human-rights orga­ni­za­tion led by low-wage work­ers – and the non­prof­it Nation­al Eco­nom­ic & Social Rights Ini­tia­tive co-pub­lished a report on Inner Harbor’s labor con­di­tions that doc­u­ment­ed abus­es such as chron­ic wage theft. The report pro­filed many work­ers, includ­ing Nad­ja Martens, a serv­er at Hard Rock Café, and Jason Bandy, a serv­er at Capi­tol City Brew­ing Com­pa­ny. Both saw big pay­check decreas­es dur­ing the win­ter months, when tourism was slow and tips were scarce. Dur­ing … Novem­ber, Decem­ber, Jan­u­ary, Feb­ru­ary, 100 per­cent of the time I was not paid min­i­mum wage,” said Bandy.

This report was the first inves­ti­ga­tion of its kind. The for­mal mea­sure of suc­cess for these pub­lic invest­ments [in the Inner Har­bor] has been a super­fi­cial assess­ment of whether a run­down area has been cleaned up,’ whether cus­tomers are hap­py, whether busi­ness­es and investors are mak­ing mon­ey,” the report stat­ed. Job cre­ation has been addressed as a sim­ple mat­ter of quan­ti­ty – how many jobs are cre­at­ed – not of quality.”

Todd Cherkis, a Bal­ti­more orga­niz­er with Unit­ed Work­ers, puts it this way: There’s the myth about the Inner Har­bor, and then there’s the reality.”

A dif­fer­ent approach

In 1994, in response to the bleak con­di­tions, Bal­ti­more cit­i­zens mobi­lized the nation’s first grass­roots liv­ing wage cam­paign, fight­ing to estab­lish high­er wage stan­dards for busi­ness­es that receive gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies. The cam­paign was his­toric, but activists won a watered-down vic­to­ry: The new require­ments applied only to city con­trac­tors, not all pub­licly sub­si­dized developers.

Since 1994, more than 120 oth­er munic­i­pal­i­ties have seen their own liv­ing wage cam­paigns, inspired by the orig­i­nal Bal­ti­more activists. One was Los Ange­les, which enact­ed a liv­ing wage ordi­nance in 1997. A year lat­er, LA res­i­dents pushed for what would become the nation’s first CBA – a labor agree­ment tied to an incom­ing Hol­ly­wood shop­ping mall and enter­tain­ment com­plex. Dozens of cities have since nego­ti­at­ed their own CBAs; 28 were in effect nation­wide as of 2012.

The sto­ry of the water­front devel­op­ment in Buf­fa­lo, New York, pro­vides a strong con­trast to Baltimore’s. In 2004, the state-run Erie Canal Har­bor Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (ECHDC) embarked on a plan to trans­form Buffalo’s water­ways into a Great Lakes ver­sion of the Inner Har­bor. Using a $350 mil­lion grant from the New York Pow­er Author­i­ty, the ECD­HC planned to give approx­i­mate­ly $40 mil­lion in pub­lic sub­si­dies to out­door-sport­ing goods store Bass Pro, to be the anchor ten­ant, and Ben­der­son Devel­op­ment, to build the retail store.

When we found out about all this, we were real­ly con­cerned about the size of pub­lic sub­si­dies for pri­vate busi­ness­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Bass Pro, a low-wage employ­er,” says Andy Reynolds, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions orga­niz­er with the Buf­fa­lo-based non-prof­it Coali­tion for Eco­nom­ic Jus­tice (CEJ). We began to learn about com­mu­ni­ty ben­e­fits agree­ments as a best prac­tice, so we start­ed a coali­tion to launch one of our own.” The result was the Canal Side Com­mu­ni­ty Alliance, a coali­tion of more than 60 com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions launched in 2009 to put pub­lic pres­sure on both devel­op­ers and local polit­i­cal lead­ers. By 2013, the Canal Side Com­mu­ni­ty Alliance was able to get the state to agree to a CBA. The project is still under­way, but with less empha­sis on retail and a greater com­mit­ment to local needs like good jobs, Buffalo’s Inner Har­bor – in the­o­ry – will look quite dif­fer­ent from Baltimore’s.

To be sure, CBAs are no panacea. If devel­op­ers do not hold up their end of a CBA agree­ment, the com­mu­ni­ty coali­tion must hold them account­able, which in many cas­es means going to court. Such sus­tained over­sight is chal­leng­ing and some­times unsuc­cess­ful. And, as Peter Mar­cuse, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of urban plan­ning at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, writes, CBAs … often pro­vide only a lim­it­ed reach for alter­na­tive means of mak­ing the plan­ning process tru­ly democratic.”

Still, CBAs are far bet­ter than noth­ing, and the fact that they are in ALEC’s crosshairs is a tes­ta­ment to their effi­ca­cy. As Matthew Raf­fol writes in Advo­cates’ Forum, By orga­niz­ing res­i­dents of low-income com­mu­ni­ties and grant­i­ng them access to devel­op­ment plan­ning process­es, CBA coali­tions trans­form these res­i­dents from objects of urban devel­op­ment pol­i­cy to sub­jects who active­ly shape devel­op­ment deci­sions [and] exact a price on pri­vate cap­i­tal that it would not oth­er­wise incur.” In oth­er words, when faith, labor and com­mu­ni­ty groups come togeth­er to make demands on munic­i­pal projects, they shift the dynam­ics of urban pow­er and set the stage for fur­ther demands.

Hope yet for Baltimore

In April 2013, hun­dreds of Bal­ti­more­ans ral­lied at the site of the new Horse­shoe casi­no to cel­e­brate a deal that local unions, with the help of Mary­land state offi­cials, had bro­kered with Cae­sars Enter­tain­ment Corp. The 1,200 per­ma­nent casi­no staff would be allowed to orga­nize with­out man­age­ment oppo­si­tion, using a sim­ple-major­i­ty card check” process.

That vic­to­ry is being used to fuel a push for fair devel­op­ment through­out the city. In Octo­ber 2014, a new group called One Bal­ti­more Unit­ed – com­prised of labor, faith and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions – ral­lied out­side City Hall for high­er-wage jobs, improved schools and bet­ter pub­lic ser­vices. Our goal is to show that the Inner Har­bor mod­el is out­dat­ed,” says Unit­ed Work­ers’ Cherkis. The coali­tion is keep­ing a close watch on future devel­op­ment projects and sees CBAs as one tool in its arsenal.

Cherkis express­es cau­tious opti­mism: The land­scape to address these issues is def­i­nite­ly changing.”

Rachel M. Cohen is a jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rmc031
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