Rebuilding America’s Cities

 

By Chad Pillai.

 

My deployment and experiences in Iraq from 2006-2007 focusing on reconstruction and development have shaped my opinions and thoughts how to apply those lessons back home.  I published an article: Tal’Afar and Ar Ramadi: Grassroots Reconstruction  highlighting some of the lessons learned in building enduring projects and programs to resurrect a local economy as the means to starving the fuel, unemployed and uneducated citizens, needed by ideological fanatics leading the insurgency against us. 

Since then, I have thought long and hard on how if given a chance, I would apply those lessons back home to help rebuild America.  This became my campaign issue as I competed for the White House Fellowship in 2011 on the need to focus inward. This is something many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan would agree that they would have preferred to see their energies and tax dollars spent on rebuilding America rather than foreign lands. 

When I returned home from Iraq, I took the time to visit family in Reading, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey.  In 2011, Reading was listed as the poorest city in America. In 2013, NBC News aired a special on Camden as the deadliest city in America per capita to its population size. For these two cities, and many others, to include Detroit, the changing economic landscape has left these cities behind.  To fill the vacuum left behind by well paying manufacturing-industrial jobs, low paying service jobs and a deadly illicit economy centered on narcotics took hold.   

Driving through Camden made me feel more insecure than driving through insurgent plagued cities in Iraq because I wasn’t in large armored vehicles or had my personal arsenal with me as I had in Iraq.  In a way, it felt wrong to be more afraid of being in an American city than in a foreign country where you know the bad guys are trying to kill you.  Taking my direct observations from cities like Reading and Camden, how would I apply some of the lessons learned in Iraq to rebuild these cities? 

Investment in Base Industries

If I were the Mayor of one of these cities, my overall strategy would focus on how to attract investment, both domestic and foreign, to create jobs and a sense of ownership of the future.  I would focus on what I refer to as my base industry concept identifying employers who employ a sizable portion of my city, excluding local city government, in order to help them expand.  In Tal’Afar, my focus was rebuilding the granary which would have served not only local farmers bring their harvest to market, but also supported the 2nd and 3rd order effected small businesses ranging from bakers to machinist. 

Camden’s largest employers are L-3 Communications, Campbell Soup, and the various medical centers while Reading’s largest employers are East Penn Manufacturing, Carpenter Technology, and the Reading Hospital and Medical Center.  These employers indirectly support the rest of the city’s economy by providing the base population of citizens with sufficient and stable discretionary income to support smaller businesses and retailers in the area.  My goal would be to help these manufacturers, and attract new ones, to stay and eventually expand their operations through a mix of incentives and targeted investments to indirectly help small businesses grow. 

Focused Infrastructure Development

At the national level, there have been discussions regarding the need for greater infrastructure investment and the need to create a national infrastructure bank.  I would take these ideas and localize them.  Instead of taxing local businesses to support this initiative, I would create a tax incentive vehicle that would incentivize them to invest in a local infrastructure bank in return for lowering their property and business taxes.  The local infrastructure bank would be composed primarily of local business leaders who would determine the most appropriate use of the funds to rebuild critical road, electric, and water infrastructure networks that encourage economic growth.  This would encourage businesses to invest in infrastructure that better suits their needs while limiting the ability of the local government to support the rebuilding of schools.  This will help ensure infrastructure funds are not misappropriated for non-infrastructure projects or programs.  

Selective use of Eminent Domain

In the 1960s and 70s, the “Broken Windows Theory” emerged on how to reduce crime and generate economic growth in urban areas.  This theory was put to practice in New York City where it appeared to work on the surface; however, it remains inconclusive whether it would have worked elsewhere without the economic foundation that New York City enjoyed.  The theory focused on active policing of broken neighbors rather than rebuilding them. 

My approach would be the selective use of Eminent Domain to clear neighborhoods of abandoned homes, warehouses, and etc that serve as potential breading grounds for crime. According to the Legal Information Institute, Eminent Domain is “the power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use. The Fifth Amendment provides that the government may only exercise this power if they provide just compensation to the property owners.”  In cities like Camden, there are stretches of neighborhoods with abandoned homes, businesses, and warehouses that blight the landscape and depressed the value of private and commercial properties.  Many of these locations serve as the breeding grounds for illegal activities which further depress property values and scare off potential investors. 

I would utilize the court system to enact Eminent Domain to acquire abandoned properties for auctioning to investors.  Then, I would offer tax incentives for the demolishing of properties deemed unusable.  Doing so would help clear vast stretches of land for redevelopment and eventually increase property values. 

Devolution of City Services

To the greatest degree possible, I would limit the involvement of the city government in providing direct services to the citizens beyond police, fire, and emergency services.  Services like waste removal would be commercialized where businesses and residents would have to pay for such services either through direct business fees or built into their rental costs. 

Focused Educational Programs and Workfare

There are two complaints about today’s economy.  First, many businesses complain of an insufficient pool of qualified workers for the jobs that are available.  Second, there is a pool of “moochers” who live off the work of others while they collect welfare benefits.   Admittedly, both are valid complaints.  As the “Great Recession” has exposed, many college graduates lack the educational skill sets needed by many of today’s industries and there has been a general disregard for technical degrees granted by community colleges.  While many manufacturing jobs have been globalized and moved to China, there are technically related jobs that cannot be sent overseas due to the technical nature and the localized need for those services. 

As a city leader, I would gather businesses and educational leaders to devise an educational investment strategy that aligns more of the educational curriculum to the needs of the business and industrial community.  It is recognition that the business and industrial communities are the primary consumers of the educational system and therefore needs to have confidence in the final product they are employing.  Additionally, various tax incentives can be applied to both businesses and individuals who spend time mentoring students in schools, equipment donations, or through internship programs. 

One of the methods applied in Iraq was to pay local workers to clean streets of debris.  This was more of a threat reduction method to reduce areas where explosives could be hidden, but also as a means to provide a wage for people to care for their families.  For everyone, except the disabled, this model needs to be applied to those receiving Welfare support.  Recipients would either have to enroll in a technical educational program or provide community service to receive benefits.  This serves two purposes: first, the pride of working while developing skills while building their resume; and secondly, the acknowledgement by those who are funding with their tax dollars the program that their money is actively being used to better the community.  

Veterans

The single greatest resource many of these cities have is the large pool of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have experienced with reconstruction work.  Local Governments and the business community could utilize these mission driven individuals to design and implement many of these ideas.  They have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly overseas and can help steer the projects in the right direction if given the opportunity. 

Conclusion

I will concede that what I have laid out is more of a conceptual framework than a full fledge strategy, but one worth examining for the redevelopment of American cities.  Utilizing the experience of veterans who have done reconstruction work overseas in partnership with business leaders and investors can help foster a positive atmosphere for change that lessens the burden of government and creates a greater sense of ownership for all. 

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