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Letter to the Editor: Event Center has unseen pitfalls

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

In most of the criticism of the Event Center and now the downtown hotel project, an important argument has been underappreciated: The economic impact estimates are visually impressive but ultimately meaningless.

The Event Center estimates “an average annual economic impact of more than $20 million a year for Rocky Mount and the surrounding region.” Much has been said about the fact that the financing for this comes from taxpayers, but less has been said about the corresponding negative impacts or where that $20 million goes, assuming it shows up in the first place.

The economic impact represents the use of $20 million that we can see, but — as economists have reminded us since Frédéric Bastiat in 1848 — it is at least as important to account for the things that aren’t easy to see. It’s only natural for Rocky Mount citizens and businesses to want to use this new facility we’re paying for, but what we don’t see is that every event held there for local crowds, such as Sunday’s Father’s Day Brunch, comes at the expense of local businesses — a double wound, since they’re also taxpayers.

The subtle costs of the center’s construction go far deeper than the price tag, however. It’s hard to see where the economic impact of the construction projects goes: Out-of-town companies, long-term downtown real estate investors and well-connected developers and contractors. It’s hard to see the consequences of construction congestion (failed businesses construction zones, everyone who sits in traffic). It’s hard to see all the businesses that won’t locate here, the residents who will leave or not move here in the first place, of which I am likely one, and the economic investment that will not occur when the bills come due and taxes inevitably rise.

The simple fact of municipal projects like this is that they almost never meet their impact projections in the first place. Even if the Event Center does, the “impact” will be distributed among a small subset of the city’s residents, while the costs will be felt by all of us … whether we see them or not. The first step to limiting the damage is for decision-makers to acknowledge and account for those unseen costs — and if they continue not to, they must be held accountable.

Matt Gilliland

Rocky Mount

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