CON: “I am not going to spend down our reserves especially in a time when we don’t know what the economy is going to bring.”

[Los Alamitos Puts the Brakes on Downtown Revitalization, Los Alamitos-SealBeach Patch, 7/19]

When funding gets cut for planning and outreach, downtown infrastructure projects can come to a grinding halt, as is the case in Los Alamitos, CA, where a concept design for a $2.5 million dollar downtown streetscape improvement project was recently put on hold.

We often say that planning is an excellent thing to do in a down economy, so that when the economy gets better and resources become available, projects are ready to go. But sometimes realpolitik intervenes and despite an organization’s best efforts, finding the resources, even just for planning, can be a challenge.

PRO: “The city is getting significant value for our investment in terms of parking, public spaces, the future expansion for the museum”

[Proposal: Palm Springs to pay $43M in Desert Fashion Plaza mall project, Mydesert.com, 7/19]

In contrast to Los Alamitos, Palm Springs, CA is contemplating committing $11 million dollars for new street construction and parking facilities improvements (an additional $32 million will be held in escrow for other project related costs) as part of a revamping of a single-owner shopping center called Desert Fashion Plaza. Voters will be asked to approve a 1% sales tax increase. The City argues that the investment would result in $600,000 in additional property taxes annually.

MY TAKE:
I’m not quite sure that investment in a single-owner downtown shopping center is necessarily the best alternative, but I do find it interesting that these two communities lie on opposite ends of the investment spectrum, each conducting a very different calculus resulting in two different outcomes.

In most cases I do believe that failure to invest is shortsighted. But the cost-benefit analysis of any particularly investment must be measured accurately so that scarce resources can be allocated appropriately and with full disclosure. That said, without investment in downtown infrastructure and improvements to the public realm, a community can end up digging its downtown into a deeper and deeper hole of disinvestment that is difficult to crawl out of, even when the economy gets better. As the competition for scarce consumer dollars gets stiffer, competitive districts and more controlled shopping environments (like the mall), benefit as consumers choose places that  look and feel better. These alternative shopping venues are cleaner, safer, and managed in a way that better meets customers needs. The dangers of long-term disinvestment are very real, and ultimately affect the tax base, not to mention puts small businesses at risk over the long-run.

So here are my questions for our readers…is downtown investment the right thing to do in a down economy? And if so, under what conditions? And how do you sell this investment in a challenging political environment?