A Quick Note about Subsidization

Subsidization.

Depending on which side you’re on, the word elicits either hope or disgust.

I’m sympathetic to both sides.

I have worked in the nonprofit industry for the past 9 years and know firsthand how stark the difference is between private donations and corporate funds. In our world, the difference between small award money and large government grants can easily mean the decision of sticking to volunteer help vs hiring paid staff, seeking free tagline promotion vs paying for billboards, or repairing outdated computers vs upgrading to new office supplies. Subsidies make the impossible possible. And, when used strategically, they provide better services and improved efficiency which, in turn, actually paves the way toward independence and increased capacity.

Conversely, I understand that the goal of every entity is to be independent of government handouts and subsidies, free from corporate entanglements, and at liberty to make decisions without needing to answer to those who are actually footing the bill. And I do believe that privatized systems usually do work better and more efficiently (which is why I am not a Socialist).

When it comes to an issue like the Cincinnati streetcar–whose controversy has made national newsthe opposition has a legitimate point: Why should residents in the outskirts of the city subsidize a project that (directly) benefits only a small minority of the population? Like I said, it’s a legitimate question.

So it needs to be addressed.

One of the gentlemen who commented on my blog post about the streetcar debate echoed many other Cincinnatians when he wrote (mocking me by his quote):

So… the “strong urban core” requires looting people from the suburbs. Who is depending on whom?

I am sympathetic to his point and I’ve heard it said a million times in a million different ways. But I believe it speaks out of a misunderstanding of how vibrant cities actually work.

A metropolitan area is a complex machine. If a city were the human body (the most complex machine in existence), the city’s infrastructure would be the veins and arteries and the people would be the blood vessels. The urban core is the heart of the city. The heart pumps the blood that pushes out into the rest of the body to move the limbs and keep the brain functioning at full capacity. If the heart dies, the rest of the body dies.

What does this have to do with subsidies?

No part of the body–or the city–functions alone. We all want to pretend that we exist independently of each other, but we don’t.

Too many of us have a false sense of autonomy.  It’s as if we believe that we are “self-made men” who have not (directly or indirectly) benefited from the financial investments of others. And maybe it’s true. Maybe we never accepted $20 from our parents for gas money. Maybe we didn’t attend a public university with the help of some sort of financial aid. Maybe we purchased our home with cash and have never borrowed from a bank. Maybe our neighborhood association paid for the street lights on our street. Maybe we wrote a personal check to off-set the cost of the mega-grocery store relocating to the shopping complex down the road. Maybe we don’t send our kids to Cincinnati Public Schools or use city trash services. Maybe we live off the grid and use electricity from solar panels (that were made by a company that was not partially-funded by a government grant).

Maybe someone somewhere lives in a place that is growing and thriving and a safe, wonderful place to live, but where everyone pays for only their own stuff and no one ever has to share anything.

But I don’t live in that place.
I live in a city.
And, in a city, we share.

When we choose to live in a city–and I don’t mean an “urban area,” I mean an incorporated City in the proper sense–we make a promise to cooperate with our neighbors to make the city a better place for all of us. When we have an opportunity to embark on a new project that could benefit us all, we do it together or we don’t do it at all. And, if we can’t agree how to do it or how to pay for it, we put it up for a vote and the majority rules.

I understand that some people are skeptical of the streetcar project. I’ve admitted many times that I’m a bit skeptical myself. But, in this instance, the majority has already ruled.

Twice.

When people on the edges of Cincinnati say that they “shouldn’t have to pay” for development in our urban core, they are functioning with that false sense of autonomy. They act like the quality of life or culture, energy, or economic vitality of the urban core means nothing for the quality of their own lives. It’s as if they’ve never watched a Bengal’s game. Or had a job with one of downtown’s Fortune 500 companies. Or their kids didn’t beg to go see the fireworks on the riverfront or the Christmas tree on the square or the exhibit at the museum. Or they didn’t buy their wives or husbands or grandparents or secretary a ticket to the Symphony or the ballet.

Amenities and cultural institutions are what make Cincinnati a vibrant and desirable place to live, work, and play. A healthy urban core gives businesses and institutions a safe and comfortable place to exist and a safe and comfortable place for you to bring your out-of-town guests (and take your urban-chic family photos, which are all the rage among suburban folk). Without a healthy urban core, we decentralize these amenities to a point where we lose the very thing that draws people here in the first place–our shared identity.

We, collectively, choose to subsidize the infrastructure of our city because it’s what keeps the people–the blood, if you will–moving in and out and around the entire machine. Without a healthy urban core and an efficient and updated infrastructure, we simply cannot make the city the machine it needs to be to sustain the rest of the parts.

Said another way:
We can live without an arm, but not without a heart.

Or:
If you want a healthy city, you need to pump some love into its heart.

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8 thoughts on “A Quick Note about Subsidization

  1. I would like to post my opinion on a few things, from the ‘arm’ of the city.
    1) The fact that most people claim that the ‘majority has ruled – twice’ is, in theory true. Yet the wording of BOTH bills had the sweeping generalization for ‘all rail projects’. In a sense, those who wished to see the streetcar project completed, handcuffed those who were against it (the streetcar) but for other projects (i.e. light rail). This is not a true vote FOR the streetcar. That’s why I support Mayor Cranley and the other council members who are lobbying to put a ‘streetcar’ specific vote to the public. In addition, only the people who live inside the city limits got a chance to vote. No arms or legs or fingers or toes of this “body of Cincinnati” got a say, but our pocketbooks will take the hit.

    2) The failure of many businesses in downtown, the relocation of companies to other areas of the city and other cities altogether, have not stopped people from attending the Reds or Bengals or the Labor Day Fireworks. But to say that you must support the streetcar because you support those events is preposterous. If what you are saying is true, then I hope you support all of the West Side because you go to WestFest or the Harvest Home Festival. Going to an event does not make you obligated to the area.

    3) If you want to know how vibrant cities work, look outside of the Cincinnati area. We will never be a ‘vibrant city’ because our landscape doesn’t dictate it. New York, LA, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, those areas have a business district, a shopping district, an arts district, etc. The sheer size of the urban landscape has allowed this to happen. Cincinnati will never be that big, because it would interrupt the flow of many smaller communities. To put it in perspective, OTR could exist anywhere, not just north of downtown Cincinnati. They are not codependent.

    4) The city core (i.e. “Downtown”) does, in fact, function independently of the “rest” of the city. When Tower Place was sold, it didn’t affect those people living in Blue Ash or Kenwood, they had other places to shop. When the Christmas Train display moved from the old CG&E building to Union Terminal, it didn’t affect the lighting of the tree on Fountain Square. People move on and exist just fine without a ‘thriving’ downtown area.

    5) When the Bengals or Reds are playing a home game, the city is electric, but two hours after, it’s a veritable ghost town. People don’t tend to hang out downtown afterwards. The question that should be asked is, how do we get them to stay? Instead we are debating on a streetcar that some believe will keep people in the “heart of the city”. The mantra of “If you build it, they will come” is a fallacy. We built a huge convention center and it sits vacant most weeks. We built new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals, and while the attendance for both has increased, they are far from selling out every game. We started projects like the rusting monstrosity that sits along I-71 in Kenwood that never get finished because no one wants it any more. Businesses that people want, that’s what would drive the streetcar, not the other way around.

    Build the places people want to go, then make a way for them to get there. Until that occurs, you will have the majority subsidizing the minority.

    • “New York, LA, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, those areas have a business district, a shopping district, an arts district, etc.”

      And Cincinnati doesn’t?

      At one time Cincinnati had half a million people. At one time we were the 6th largest metro in the country. Now we’re 28th. At this rate, in 50 years we won’t even be top 100th.

      It’s not about keeping up with the 5 cities you mentioned. It’s about keeping up with Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, even Detroit. This idea that we’re too small for rail is crazy. Every other city our size has rail, or is building it.

      And comparing an events center like the Convention Center or stadiums to a 365-day-a-year transportation system is like comparing apples and porcupines.

    • Liz, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think she was talking about places like Blue Ash or Kenwood as being the arms, feet, toes, etc. I think she is referring to the City of Cincinnati and its 52 neighborhoods where Downtown is the urban core (or the heart) and the limbs are places like Walnut Hills, East End, Northside, Hyde Park, etc.

      And in response to: “We will never be a ‘vibrant city’ because our landscape doesn’t dictate it.” I completely disagree. You don’t have to be “BIG” to be a vibrant city. And furthermore, Cincinnati is not trying to be NYC, Chicago, SF, or Seattle. We are trying to be CINCINNATI.

      A streetcar could connect different neighborhoods (or “districts”) by breaking through the landscape barrier you allude to and providing permanent, accessible public transit to many of Cincinnati’s unique assets for those of us that LIVE AND WORK in the City. And again, I’m talking about Cincinnati neighborhoods here like Clifton, Corryville, Walnut Hills, OTR, and other neighborhoods that would be linked by Phase I and Phase II of the streetcar. People that live AND work in the City use these neighborhoods on a weekly basis for a variety of reasons. We would be a one car family if this kind of transportation existed.

      Lastly, only 3% of the streetcar budget is coming from Income Tax Capital (http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/streetcar/streetcar-funding/) so even if you work in Cincinnati but live outside the City, your contribution to the project is nominal. That said, I’m sorry that you don’t get to vote (that would frustrate me too), but if you feel very strongly about it, maybe you should consider living and working in the same city.

  2. I hope articles like this help people understand how important a strong, vibrant urban core is to the entire area.

  3. Ok, wow… cmbtengr, you’re off the mark on a lot of stuff, but I’m not going to spend the time to pick apart your whole post. But you got this part so wrong, it needs to be addressed:

    “the wording of BOTH bills had the sweeping generalization for ‘all rail projects’. In a sense, those who wished to see the streetcar project completed, handcuffed those who were against it (the streetcar) but for other projects (i.e. light rail).”

    COAST wrote those amendments. Every word. It is way beyond unfair to blame streetcar supporters for “handcuffing” anyone. That is ALL on streetcar opponents. They had two shots at being more specific, but decided to shoot for the sun instead of the moon. By the way, if you do some internet searches, you’ll see streetcar opponents insisted supporters were lying when they said those votes were about more than the streetcar. They were the ones lying (which you implicitly acknowledge in your post). The indisputable fact is opponents took two shots at defeating the thing by putting Issues 9 and 48 on the ballot, and failed each time.

    • I would like to look at this Streetcar from an outside view. I have lived in Europe for many years, some places had a “streetcar” type transit, others had buses like Cincinnati. The one large significant thing that places them apart from us is that they had a body of people that had to move from point A to point B. We do not, we have a streetcar that, when stage three is completed will only really service the Clifton area to the downtown area. The populous that may need to be moved is college students going downtown and returning to campus. This is nice but really only would be sustainable on the weekends.
      I do not see a compelling reason for a person to come into downtown, park there car (for a fee) and then catch the streetcar for a ride up two or three blocks. On suggested that the operational cost could be shifted to the businesses along the route in for of a tax. This would be in the line of $20,000 a year per business if the cost of 4 million are accurate, but I believe 10 million is more on cue. I think this is a pipe dream just like the slave center and the underground bus terminal.

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