One of the trickiest jobs facing politicians and bureaucrats is handing out money.
In Jacksonville, there is an agency whose sole purpose is handing out money.
The Downtown Investment Authority was created in 2013 to revitalize Jacksonville’s urban core by utilizing Community Redevelopment Area resources to spur economic development.
DIA’s projects are guided by a nine-member board of directors who are unpaid volunteers. Five are appointed by the mayor and four by the City Council president. All nine are confirmed by the council and the council votes to approve any projects. The DIA is headed by Aundra Wallace.
DIA followed the short-lived Jacksonville Economic Development Council.
Predecessor of the JEDC was the Downtown Development Authority. It was created soon after the 1974 Amelia Island Conference, a summit level gathering of civic and government leaders, which listed downtown development as No. 1 of ten top priorities facing the city.
One early mechanism was tax increment districts. They were established in the downtown area to lure business. The new tax revenue from new business is used for public infrastructure in the district, rather than being disbursed throughout the city.
Like all urban areas, Jacksonville fights constantly to keep its downtown area from deteriorating into blight. Yet, 44 years after making it a top priority the problem apparently has not been solved.
To that end, the Chamber of Commerce, Office of Economic Development and DIA seek to lure local and outside businesses to the core and two other designated areas.
But, it is a game.
Businesses have learned that they can play cities who need them. They will try to extract as much money as they can from taxpayers to defray their own expenses and enhance their profits.
The only reason it works is that cities believe they have to bid to get the business. If all of them abstained, the game would be over. But that will never happen.
One downside is that existing local businesses operating at their own risk are screwed over by the process.
Competition is created for them using their own money for the subsidy to their competitors.
The other distasteful aspect of “incentives” is that politicians basically are bribing people to do business in areas where they normally would not do business, usually because it would not be profitable.
Currently, the city is trying to promote development in the former slum area of Brooklyn, and there has been some success. Also, some failure.
Three restaurants in the area have failed. Restaurants, admittedly, are a tough business, but would the businesses even have attempted to open on their own dime?
In some cases, the city is supposed to be reimbursed for losses. How well that works is open to question, and we plan to ask questions.
The whole process is rife with potential for graft, waste and corruption. No matter how many safeguards are built into the process, it needs constant surveillance.
The City Council Auditor’s Office currently is doing a routine audit of DIA and we will report its findings when complete.