My day job involves working for an organization whose mission is: “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”
Those are the words and vision of inventor Dean Kamen, founder of the U.S. Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, better known as FIRST. FIRST engages kids in elementary through high school grades in competitive robotics competitions that provide youth with opportunities to work with professional mentors and learn science, math and engineering skills in fun, enduring and rewarding ways, with over $16 million in scholarships for participating high schoolers.
“The assumption that drove the creation of FIRST, “ Kamen said in an interview with PTC last year, “ was you get what you celebrate in a free culture, and the reason America was slipping compared to a lot of its peers around the world—particularly in kids getting involved with and mastering science and technology—was not bad teachers or bad schools, it wasn’t what we don’t have. It was the fact that as a rich country we have so many distractions that have created for kids role models that prevent them from working hard at things that matter.”
In the last few weeks, I was so immersed in working with students , their mentors and the local business community supporting kids in “working hard at the things that matter,” that I almost missed an equally important debate on things that matter to us here in Tampa Bay involving a big box retailer and the substantive public tax payer incentive that county officials want to give the store to open shop in our community.
The Tampa Bay Times reports that the Hillsborough County Commission is considering contributing $6.25 million (down from $15 million, initially) toward road improvements around “The Estuary”, an enormous, ironically named shopping plaza planned between Falkenburg Road and Interstate 75 – currently the site of Florida pine scrub, and a good 15 miles inland from any chance of an “estuary”, which is by definition a partially enclosed body of coastal water where freshwater from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean and actually does something physically, biologically, environmentally and even economically useful, by virtue of the recreational opportunities our coastline offers.
Besides the sad fact that “The Estuary” shopping center is going to completely destroy anything remotely natural – estuarian or otherwise – in the area of planned development, developers predictions of “ annual sales of $61.8 million, generating state and local sales taxes” and “property assessment climbing to $16.4 million, boosting taxes on land now used for agriculture” ring hollow in light of the facts, and misleading in light of “things that matter.”
Bass Pro’s track record and the history of big tax incentives for major retailers suggest assurances that “ Hillsborough could break even on its $15 million investment by 2018” are probably more than a little inflated. More important, though: Do we truly believe that subsidized shopping offers a real return on our investment towards our collective future?
Bass Pro projects it would create 369 permanent, full-time jobs in addition to 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years, and the entire shopping plaza development is project to create 1,327 retail jobs.
But the fact is, says a report by the Public Accountability Initiative that examined such claims (Fishing for Taxpayer Cash), “Bass Pro often fails to deliver on its promises as an economic development anchor and major tourist destination – promises which were used to reel in government subsidies. Its stores successfully attract shoppers, but often do not produce sought-after economic benefits associated with major tourist destinations,” and taxpayers in places like Cincinnati, Harrisburg PA, and Bakersfield, CA “ have been left with high levels of debt and fiscal stress as a result of Bass Pro Projects.”
“Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., told The Atlantic Cities in an article last summer . ”All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”
Larry Whitely, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops, argued in the article that their stores “should be viewed as an amenity being added to a community — much like one might view a park or a library. …”These aren’t just stores – they are natural history museums. Every store is designed to reflect the unique natural environment of the area in which it is located.” “
Aside, again, from the basic fact that the store, by virtue of its construction, would be destroying a unique natural environment in the area in which it is to be located, $6.5 million would buy a lovely real natural history museum , park or library with a far greater return on the investment, socially, aesthetically, academically, environmentally and economically. $6.5 million dollars could also address food insecurity, make a serious impact on homelessness, pay for new teachers, finance school improvements, or make a nice deposit on a light rail system.
From a purely personal perspective, $6.5 million could fund a couple or three FIRST robotics STEM education robotics teams in every one of Hillsborough County’s nearly 160 K-12 schools for years, helping create the type of scientifically literate people Florida needs for a truly economically successful future. Because the real path to future prosperity in Florida and nationally, economic development experts are saying, is growing a knowledge based economy,not a consumer based one.
A knowledge based economy is one that is “driven by research, ideas, innovations, and technical skills to generate high-impact economic benefits and high-wage jobs. Strong sustainable knowledge economies
- Are able to sell goods and services at a higher profit margin than others;
- Earn average wages up to $25,000 more than non-knowledge-based communities, and;
- Are able to perform and execute business through more cost-effective and efficient relationships.
In the “New Economy Index” report of states by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which evaluates states on a similar “knowledge based” formula, Florida ranked 21st – and dropping.
“Some have argued that, given the economic downturn, now is not the time to focus on innovation,” observed the report’s authors. “rather, our chief concern should be job creation. Yet, fostering innovation and creating jobs are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, most studies of the issue have found that innovation is positively correlated to job growth in the mid- to long-term.”
By a correlation factor of 0.87, notes one author – ” in fact exponentially proportional to KEI (Knowledge Economic Indicator) , ie higher the KEI, higher is the per capita income of that country and vice versa. Highest KEI is of Denmark at 9.58 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the lowest KEI is of Myanmar at 0.96 at rank 145.” (Express Tribune-)
Among the key findings in Change the Equation’s Florida Vital Signs report, “Florida needs a world class education system and seamless talent supply chain to meet workforce demands at all skill levels. STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is of the utmost priority if Florida is to achieve its long term goal.”
Nowhere in that report is there a call for more consumer opportunities or retail jobs.
“Before handing taxpayer money to Bass Pro projects, ” concludes the Public Accountability Initiative report, ” public officials should consider what some other cities are going through as a result of Bass Pro-anchored projects that have fallen short: high levels of debt and fiscal duress, lackluster development, vacancy and blight, and lower-than-expected tax revenues. Considering the potential consequences, it is imperative for public officials and taxpayers to take the proper steps to ensure that they are not subsidizing an underperforming development: ask straightforward questions of Bass Pro and project developers, demand transparency and data, secure contractual guarantees that limit cannibalization, and, above all, consider alternatives. There is no good reason to subsidize development that sells cities short and leaves taxpayers on the hook.”
Public officials – and the public – should also consider what really matters to Florida’s future and help us build a Knowledge economy that will serve us and future generations far better, and make us far more productive and competitive than any retail chain store ever will. If, as Dean Kamen says, and as I fully agree, we get what we celebrate, and the best we can do is Bass Pro Shops , then that’s all we’ll get.
If, however, we choose to celebrate creative productivity and scientific and technical literacy and achievement, we’ll get so much more than we could ever have imagined!
On May 11, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) scientist Connie Bersok was suspended , pending an investigation, ostensibly for refusing to rubber stamp a Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank application to turn a north Florida pine plantation into a wetlands mitigation bank. I was only peripherally aware of mitigation banks before reading this story. But fresh from a weekend stay at Gold Head Branch State Park, up in Keystone, FL - in Clay County where Highlands Ranch plans to manage a 1,500-acre wetlands mitigation bank – and where our little waterfront cabin overlooked only a baked mud lake bed, the topic drew my interest. It’s a topic that should draw more Floridians’ interest.
As a matter of fact, many if not most of the lakes in the area were dry . There weren’t many wetlands to
speak of, and much of the area is and has historically been pine forest, as evidenced by the sawmill history of Clay County in the 1880s. By their own description, the land HRMB wants to manage currently consists of about 1000 acres of “mesic and xeric pine plantation, which will be restored to native mesic flatwoods and sandhill communities, 223.9 acres of hydric pine plantation, which will be restored to native mixed forested wetlands/hammock communities, 328.1 acres of isolated and contiguous wetlands that will be preserved and enhanced as part of the mitigation plan, and 32.4 acres of trail roads, power lines and structure.”
According to the EPA, a mitigation bank is ” a wetland, stream, or other aquatic resource area that
has been restored, established, enhanced, or (in certain circumstances) preserved for the purpose of providing compensation for unavoidable impacts to aquatic resources permitted under Section 404 or a similar state or local wetland regulation.1 A mitigation bank may be created when a government agency, corporation, nonprofit organization, or other entity undertakes these activities under a formal agreement with a regulatory agency. ”
Despite what I’m sure are good environmental intentions, I see nothing but a gold plated loop hole for developers here, a way to play an environmental shell game with our natural resources. By virtue of the mere existence of mitigation banks, there is no reason to even really try to avoid environmental impacts on aquatic resources. Developers know they can simply buy their way out any impact by purchasing mitigation credits, a feel good pay off that supposedly off sets any loss of land or resources caused by a project.
And in the case of HRMB, it’s land that is not even wetlands to begin with. The majority of the “mesic” (seasonally wet) and “xeric” (dry) pine plantations they want to restore to their “native mesic flatwoods and sandhill communities” are still pine forests, not wetlands. Additionally, it takes nature infinite periods of undisturbed time to create a true wetlands (or pine forest, for that matter), with all its commensurate flora and fauna. And even then, the flora and fauna of a north Florida wetlands is going to be different from the disrupted flora and fauna of areas for which the mitigations credits are being purchased.
Furthermore, the mitigation area set aside for compensation was already there – maybe doctored up to look like a wetlands, but it’s land that already existed and has its own native plants and animals (or did, until it was recast as a new improved habitat). Now it symbolically also represents land lost elsewhere, even though the land it’s standing in for is still lost, and even though the mitigation area may not be anywhere near the area where developmental damage occurred, and even though, as in the case of Highlands Ranch, the mitigation lands may not even be wetlands.
And that’s where Connie Bersok took issue with the Highlands Ranch application. When Bersok, in the course of her job, in the service of her state and Florida’s environment, pointed this out to the DEP, Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn told her to ignore the rules and put the permit through. Bersok stood her ground quite publicly, “I hereby state my objection to the intended agency action and refusal to recommend this permit for issuance.“
Two days later, she was suspended. She has not spoken to the media, pending the ongoing investigation into her suspension and the Highlands Ranch application. The DEP , for its part, maintains in a May 31 response to the Tampa Bay Times report about the issue, “Ms. Bersok was not suspended because she refused to issue a permit. She was placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation by the department’s Inspector General. It is not the department’s policy to discuss employee personnel matters in the newspaper or with the general public.”
Furthermore, the DEP assures, “The permit has not been issued. In fact, the department has not completed its review of the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank permit application. Any decision made about this permit will be based on sound science and within the confines of Florida law and the environmental rules that govern the department’s action.”
That would be good, especially since the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s stated mission is to “ protect, conserve and manage Florida’s natural resources and enforce the State’s environmental laws.”
The DEP acknowledges criticism of mitigation banking, but says it has made improvements in a “proposed new approach” to permitting that “holds the bank operator more accountable to the required environmental result and allows for the release of credits only after environmental restoration is completed and verified to be successful. “ The DEP says it will tie credit release schedules more closely to “specific and measurable ecological conditions” using an “environmental-results based approach.”
“Despite the Times’ mischaracterization of the department’s actions and environmental policies, “ the DEP says, “the department and its employees are committed to doing the right thing by the rules and statues that govern its actions, by Florida taxpayers and by the environment.”
We don’t need any more houses, apartments, condos or shopping facilities. A large percentage of the ones we have now are standing foreclosed, abandoned, and closed for business. But we do need clean air and water, the ultimate “specific and measurable” ecological conditions.
Instead of trying to mitigate damage to our natural resources, and pretending as if mitigation credits are anything more than imaginary compensation for lands and resources that are lost forever, maybe its time to hold Florida accountable, and to look at limiting development as the only “unavoidable impact” of preserving what’s left of our natural heritage.
Consider sharing your thoughts with the DEP and Governor Scott , and letting them know whether you prefer mitigation credits for developers, or mitigating further damage to our natural resources in more effective and enduring ways, like significantly limiting further development and properly enforcing our environmental laws, and let’s stop playing shell games with Florida.
Note: You can also visit Environment Florida to send a message directly to Governor Scott and Deputy Secretary Herschel Vinyard.