Friday, June 1, 2012

How bad can "corporate socialism" get? David Cay Johnston gives us a glimpse

David Cay Johnston has a new column up today showing us some of the worst outcomes from corporate subsidies: incentives for retail development.

Johnston analyzes the case of a proposed redevelopment of the nearly-shuttered Medley Centre Mall in Irondequoit, Monroe County, New York, where developer Scott Congel is seeking a $250 million sales tax TIF. Originally a $260 million project, Congel now says he will invest $750 million to build a hotel and condos as well.

Johnston points out that retail is practically the worst thing government can subsidize, because it is almost entirely derivative of a region's population and income. If income falls (actually, even if it stays the same), the new mall can only succeed if it takes sales away from other existing outlets. And it's even worse than Johnston says, because retail jobs tend to have relatively poor pay and benefits.

The best study on this subject was conducted by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which is the regional planning agency for the St. Louis metropolitan area. This report found that from 1990 to 2007, local governments in the region had spent $2 billion in retail subsidies, repeatedly shifting the location of sales but generating no tax growth beyond the area's income growth. This comes to an astonishing $370,000 per net job if we believe that the incentives created the jobs, which is unlikely since sales growth did not exceed regional income growth. The cost per job is actually infinite.

Johnston points out more outrageous aspects to the Medley Centre proposal. Instead of conducting its own analysis of the economic impact of mall redevelopment, the developer commissioned and paid for a report, which "found" that the subsidized mall would see its sales grow from $30 million a year to $420 million per year. Johnston, by contrast, found that real income had fallen by $2.5 billion (13%) from 2000 to 2008 in Monroe County, and rightly argues that it makes the 14-fold increase in sales predicted "unlikely." Similarly, Johnston found that hotel demand in Monroe County had been flat for two decades.

Johnston also reviewed building costs for condos and hotels, finding that the $750 million price tag was "wildly inflated." As he points out, even if the figure was right, the subsidy has an aid intensity (subsidy divided by investment) of 1/3, whereas if the investment is only $260 million as earlier promised, the aid intensity comes to 96%. This would rival the 98% aid intensity on the Electrolux manufacturing plant being built in Memphis, itself an absurd level of subsidization, but at least for manufacturing rather than retail jobs.

The Medley Centre project has not yet received final approval, but it is an excellent example of all that is wrong with subsidized retail development. It won't create any new net jobs, the jobs at the mall will be low quality, the economic "analysis" was bought and paid for by the beneficiary, and the cost will be outrageously high. Let's hope there is some way it may yet be stopped.

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