VScope
10/16/03

The Kind Of Growth You Always Wanted

The Residential Resort Community
Developers in today's highly competitive, large-scale residential resort biz know exactly what kind of community their resort housing buyers want.

Consider the following item, abstracted from the November 1, 2001 report of the Urban Land Institute:

"Developers are no longer able to just stick up a hotel with a pool and maybe a restaurant in a popular area and expect to draw buyers.... Today's resort project is a more complete community, often with a town center of shops and gathering places, multiple eating establishments and a host of sites catering to a variety of activities such as skiing, hiking, biking, ecology, education and computing. "
"They want every recreational opportunity you can deliver. They want great places to hang out. People attract people," said Gary Raymond, president of resort development for Vancouver, B.C.-based Intrawest Corp., which operates 17 resort villages in Canada, the United States and Europe.
The sense of community, the need to interact with other human beings, is something that developers say they will have to be more keenly aware of….
The need to provide a diversity of options, a diversity of amenities, is going to continue."

To satisfy the requirements of "today's resort project," the existing "popular area" may have to be reshaped to satisfy the arriving nouveau community's leisure-oriented needs.

The Grassroots Community
Local officials are not answerable to stockholders of a private resort development corporation but to the taxpaying public, whose money will almost certainly be spent on projects in connection with the developer's plan.

The use of public money gives grassroots groups a chance to wedge into the planning debate and to assess what the "host" community, the town slated for large-scale residential resort development in its midst, really needs.

Grassroots organizing is not for the faint of heart. Because local officials are generally guided by the resort developer's plan, a successful grassroots strategy must combine research with organizing - e.g., generating large turnouts to hearings and actions, providing expert testimony based on a nuanced understanding of development mechanisms, and providing critical information about local economic/environmental/social impacts.

A grassroots group generally brings a skeptical focus to local development plans, opening the lens to reveal the bigger picture as well.
That picture may show public funds being given away with no strings attached - without, for instance, any community benefit agreements regarding the number and quality of local jobs created, or mitigation of problems caused by increased residential/commercial traffic, or adherence to guidelines regarding long-term environmental and public health impact.

"Partners"
Large scale residential / resort development plans often hinge on investments of public money drawn from any number of taxpayer-funded sources. The current municipal gospel of "partnering" with private developers often means that one partner, the public, is to spend money on local projects which benefit a private developer's plans - but, in the absence of agreements written directly into official municipal and county documents, the public has no way to hold the developer and local officials accountable in terms of specific, measurable benefits in return.

The developer and local officials typically maintain that the planned resort development - a "positive ratable" - is in itself a community benefit; hence, there is no need for them to provide anything else.

If there are complaints about the residential resort development plan, the developer invariably threatens to leave town - a threat most keenly felt by the local officials who have staked their political futures on the "partnership."

In this way, the residential/resort development industry has arrogated unto itself the role of Master Planner in many towns.

The "More Complete Community"
A town is a territorial and political unit with its own local history, civil society, and civil government, all of which is often inadequately described by the traditional term "community."
And all of which may be a matter of complete indifference to the residential resort developer, who sees a town merely as a potential site for construction of "upscale" resort dwellings, hotels and commercial spaces.

As a rule, local officials equate the developer's plan with the town's plan, although the town's identity may thus be obliterated.

This explains how an offering of luxury resort dwellings, planned and manufactured by the developer in response to the requirements of the speculative housing market, can be hyped as a "town planning event."
Such an offering is more accurately viewed as a real estate developer's marketing event.

Meanwhile, as we have seen, today's large scale residential / resort developers also need to market "the sense of community" to resort homebuyers and recreation consumers.

The residential resort "sense of community" template typically includes a large, conveniently located public park featuring a multipurpose recreation/ entertainment area. The public park is de riguer, as is the resort village center (by now a staple of residential resort design ) and its retail, dining and convention facilities.

Meanwhile, a real estate gold rush for commercial lots in proximity to the resort's "more complete community" will already have begun, with local landlords - to the sad cost of local small businesses - raising rents accordingly.

The developer (and assorted gold rush participants) will insist on new infrastructural systems, the better to serve the large-scale residential resort's "more complete community."

It is naive to think that such infrastructural systems will not require a very considerable expense of public money.

The Infrastructure Tab
Although there is no formal economics of infrastructure benefits and costs, local officials feel good about the prospect of spending huge amounts of public money on new or expanded water systems and sewage treatment systems, new roads,etc.

In short, where thinking /planning is concerned, the one area in which local officials seem comfortable is the realm of municipal infrastructure.

But the resort development's construction of luxury residential units and hotels, insular "shopping village," underground parking lots, golf courses, and the required infrastructural systems (water,sewer,roads), and terraforming projects may mean that, for years to come, eye-popping sums of public money may be poured into the engineering, construction, ongoing maintenance and remediation of infrastructural systems built in response to the residential resort developer's needs.

The Local Workforce
Service occupations associated with the resort industry are among the lowest-paying occupations in the U.S.

One might, on behalf of the present and future local workforce, ask how many year-round, full time jobs will be created by the residential resort's service and retail operations, and how many of those jobs will pay living wages.

Here the ground-floor demand is for information, centered on local disclosure measures that reveal figures on public monies invested in, and jobs created by, the resort development.
This is a difficult task. Public money flows out from so many spigots that it may be hard to identify all the sources and quantify the amount of public money benefits any given resort development company gets.

But the biggest problem is that most resort occupations (service and retail jobs) do not pay living wages.
Some local tradesmen and contracting firms may enjoy a bubble of prosperity in the resort's construction phase, but it is also likely that most construction labor will be imported, not local.

Seasonal resort labor is also very likely to be imported nowadays. In recent years, employment agencies in various foreign countries have made a specialty of providing resort towns with minimum-wage service workers, mainly young people for hire on seasonal contracts. Low-rate motels often serve as crowded dormitories for these low-paid "seasonal" contract workers.
Low-rent apartments may eventually be needed in the town as housing for the resort's low-income, year-round service workers and their families.

Growth of the resort population in town may necessitate the hiring of more police,as the law enforcement powers of the resort's private security guards are limited in scope.
Law enforcement hiring is always the bright spot for a local workforce in a depressed labor economy.

Meanwhile, the resort-owned "shopping village" - a high-rent commercial complex - may turn out to be a death star which kills local small businesses.

The Thirty Years' War
For the past thirty years, Vernon NJ has been the theater of "smart growth/economic development" propaganda crusades waged by residential resort developers.

During those three decades, large-scale real estate developers have consistently turned out to be the worst people in the world.
They were surely no friends of the American middle class, whose tax dollars subsidized thousands of infrastructural projects to facilitate large-scale residential development - and who then had to pay off over a trillion dollars of that industry's Savings and Loan debts to avoid a national financial collapse.

But investment in the speculative housing market has made a comeback in these wobbly economic times.
The existence hereabouts of valuable real estate - and even more valuable natural resources - means developers will never run out of ways to try, and try again, to get the cooperation of local officials.

Although portrayed over the years as "good stewardship" and "civic-business partnership," the thrust of such cooperation is to provide - using public money - infrastructural projects to boost the fortunes of residential resort developers.
The pitch remains the same: more commercial ratables will mean lower taxes for local homeowners.
It matters not that existing tax excesses are the result of earlier crusades to sanctify residential and commercial development.

Just as no genuine attention is paid to the past, no genuine attention is paid to "planning for the future" - a concept much abused by local governments, whose officials are fixated on removing all obstacles (or "obstructions") to real estate development.

To head off any "obstructions," the developer and local officials typically launch a crusade to mobilize and manage public opinion in the developer's favor.

When enough of the population has been convinced that the developer offers just the kind of growth the public always really wanted, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is an "obstructionist," then the developer and local officials can launch a more aggressive campaign of noble indignation - a campaign of de facto suppression mounted against all non-conforming opinions.

It is truly said: you can fool some of the people all the time.
Ambitious politicians will always concentrate on those people.
And developers will always concentrate on those politicians.


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