Guest Commentary

Russell Arben Fox: Wichita leaders and candidates need to read this book

Political junkie that I am, I have opinions about the upcoming city elections. My strongest opinion isn’t tied to a candidate or a party, however. Rather, it’s tied to a book: Charles Marohn’s “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.” I’m tempted to buy every mayoral and City Council candidate a copy.

Chuck Marohn is a civil engineer with years of experience in urban planning, who has built a movement out of a few basic insights about urban sustainability. (He came to Wichita for a presentation last year.) Much of his book will sound familiar to anyone acquainted with “new urbanist” principles: namely, that American cities have, over the decades, bought into an ecologically harmful, socially unhealthy suburban, auto-centric model, and need to change. Marohn, however, adds a powerful economic critique to the argument. Specifically, he writes:

1) that most American cities are dependent upon the promise of tax revenue from a never-ending series of debt-driven development schemes;

2) that these development schemes invariably carry with them enormous infrastructure liabilities — the cost of roads, sewer pipes, the electric grid, etc. — which, even if the promised tax revenue arrives (and if often doesn’t), cities will never be able to pay off;

3) and that these looming, budget-busting costs usually just make cities desperate to expand and develop even more, creating ever-more creative financial incentives and entanglements, all in the hopes of attracting enough businesses capable of paying enough taxes so as to persuade investors to purchase municipal bonds, and thus keep the cycle going.

It’s not hard to look at those bullet points and see a reflection of many recent local arguments over development: the reconstruction of Naftzger Park, the relocation of Cargill’s headquarters, the building of the new baseball stadium, and more. Note that there is nothing in Marohn’s work which would necessarily condemn all the TIF districts, corporate partnerships, and land deals that went into any of that; he’s not an instinctive “no,” as some might think. But he is someone who demonstrates that the financing behind so many development deals, when all the costs are added in, is actually quite fragile, with consequences that will handicap cities far into the future.

I can understand Wichita city leaders thinking that our city has no alternative but to craft financing deals this way. Their assumption might be that we’re not small and self-sufficient enough to break away from these patterns and chart our own collective path. Or, we’re not large and wealthy enough to launch alternative funding approaches within our own footprint. Sure, Oklahoma City took the time and built the political support necessary to pay for their new stadium and riverfront developments with taxes, without any outstanding bonds or debt — but we’re not as blessed with generous oil companies as they are, and the last proposed sales tax here was strongly rejected back in 2014. So Wichita, to keep itself growing, just needs to keep finagling whatever financial inducements it can, right?

I don’t have a good response to that, and I don’t demand that candidates for mayor or City Council all come up with complete responses either. But rather than shrugging our shoulders and resting on the usual answers, I hope they’ll at least consider the questions Marohn poses, and be more open to the possibility that growth shouldn’t always be the goal. There clearly are at least a few city workers and candidates who, after looking honestly at Wichita’s population and economic trends, have started to prioritize long-term stability and sustainability. Maybe if our new City Council all reads Marohn together, their numbers will increase.

Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University.