'Green Shoots,' Creative Destruction

YES! Weekly | February 16, 2012
I have never had the pleasure of meeting Keith G. Debbage, professor of urban geography at UNCG, but I greatly respect anyone who thinks deeply about the intersection of economy and public policy and marshals intellect to “foster positive growth in the local economy.”

That preface is necessary because I don’t want to come across as a jerk or someone trying to score points, and don’t want to be dismissed as someone who reflexively tears down civic leadership or indulges in conspiracy theories. Considering that part of the point of the annual “State of the City” report authored by Debbage is to “stimulate discussion,” here goes.

Debbage’s eminence as a local academic who has been commissioned to write numerous reports for various economic development partnerships and the Greensboro Planning Department and published upwards of 100 op-ed pieces in the News & Record and the Triad Business Journal actually starves the debate. As usual, following the release of the report, Debbage has a popularized version of the report covering almost the entire front page of the Sunday “Ideas” section in the News & Record. The effect through repetition is that academia, the partnership as a chamber of commerce-style outfit that sets the tone and agenda for municipal government, and major media speak with one voice, pushing dissenting voices to the margins.

The “green shoots” motif that pervades this latest op-ed piece obscures more truth than it reveals. Its positivist spin might be geared towards obtaining desirable outcomes by highlighting potential, but I would argue instead that it demobilizes the political will to address poverty and unemployment by reassuring elite decision-makers that the city is on the right course.

Debbage buries the most important information — that “one in every five residents lives in very poor economic conditions” — amidst riotous language about “blazing yellow daffodils” beginning to “bloom,” “green shoots” and an “improved growing season.” Referencing a quality that is absent rather than directly describing a phenomenon, Debbage concludes, as he has for years, that the state of the city “remains less than robust.”

That’s not accurate, as it implies a lack of change. In fact, as a quick glance at the Census confirms, the share of people in poverty in Greensboro has nearly doubled from 12.3 percent in 2000 to 20.1 percent in 2010. So, in fact, the state of the city has deteriorated significantly over the past decade.

As Debbage acknowledges, the plant biology metaphor is based on a notion of “seasonal changes,” which doesn’t translate very well to a reality comprised of real people. Seasonal plants bloom in the spring and die in the fall. They go to seed, and their leaves rot to fertilize the next growing cycle. People, in contrast, don’t stop needing employment and income from October through March.

The inadequacy of the “seasonal changes” metaphor is revealed, perhaps unwittingly, in one of Debbage’s case studies in positive growth. “After years of layoffs,” he writes, “some Greensboro manufacturers are ‘leaner and meaner’ and much more innovative and competitive.”

This framing implies that corporate downsizing and layoffs — a brutal process that translates into foreclosures, divorces and increased family violence — is a natural and inevitable phenomenon, and that, indeed, it is necessary for growth.

An old-growth forest whose protection from clear-cutting and despoliation allows it to maintain stability and support a growing web of biodiversity — different types of economic participants, including small businesses, workers, cooperatives, large employers, nonprofits, volunteer mobilizations — would be a more appropriate plant biology metaphor as an economic development ideal. In this framing, plants also go through a life cycle and the death of a tree nourishes the next cycle of growth, but the process sustains a more delicate balance of life forms.

The fallacy of the “seasonal changes” model is further revealed in Debbage’s commentary on the Trader Joe’s controversy. “The hubbub about the alleged Trader Joe’s development west of Friendly Center at Hobbs Road and Friendly Avenue,” he writes, “that the ‘invisible hand’ is beginning to stir after several years of dormancy.”

This Polyannish perspective omits a reality that the Business Journal spelled out clearly in a Feb. 3 article that forecasts “the Triad’s grocery wars.” As economist Don Jud tells the reporter Katie Arcieri, “There will probably be winners and losers. There could eventually be a shakeout. We’ve seen grocery stores come and go….”

To spell out the implications, as grocery stores concentrate in the coveted, high-income market on Friendly Avenue, they will inevitably close in less wealthy areas, making empty shopping centers vulnerable to aesthetic deterioration and crime, with a domino effect on the small retailers that depend on anchor stores to attract customers.

We need more sustainable models of economic development that spread the fruits of growth more equally. Unfortunately, I don’t have all or even most of the answers to substitute for the economic development framing that I so strenuously reject. I don’t think any one of us does. But all of us together have a better chance of surmounting our economic challenges than one person. Dialogue produces more lasting results than proclamation.

Consider this a challenge, Greensboro Partnership, Action Greensboro, city of Greensboro and Guilford County government. It would be truly impressive if you took the initiative to engage a wide range of citizens who are thinking deeply about how to bring about positive growth in a strategic planning effort to create shared prosperity.

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