OFF THE CUFF

Three City of Houston officials attended the 2017 Governor’s Conference on Economic Development, which took place Sept. 6-8 at the Hilton at the Ballpark in St. Louis.

One of them was Mayor Don Tottingham. When he and his cohorts set foot inside the venue, he was surprised and dismayed at what he found.

“I went because I wanted to find out what was available for cities, and I was hoping there would be several industries represented there,” Tottingham said. “I was hoping there were companies or agencies that were interested in relocation, warehousing or other things that would fit within our city. But I was pretty disappointed, because it was almost entirely state and federal government agencies that were represented there. They were all funding sources trying to sell their programs.

“I was really expecting more industry.”

Yep, apparently a conference on “economic development” is no longer a place where cities woo companies by presenting reasons why they should set up camp within their boundaries, and where companies pitch cities on why they should be interested in having them do just that. Nope, now it’s about “here’s where and how you can get a handout.”

“Pretty much,” Tottingham said.

Tottingham said he did notice one lone company from Joplin had a man with table set up at the conference.

“He was the only one to make a presentation, other than the grant funding agencies,” Tottingham said.

Houston is sometimes accused of being overly zealous with the whole grant thing, but it would appear that the town is just part of the crowd at grant central station.

“I guess one of the reasons I’m disappointed,” Tottingham said, “is that I think if you’re going to be in business, you should have enough funds to build your business. That goes for the city as well; if you’re going to build something, you should be able to afford to build it and not expect somebody else in some other part of the country to build it for you.

“But we’ve become a government-dependent society where we can’t do anything without expecting help.”

Tottingham said he didn’t want to disrespect Gov. Eric Greitens, and believes he’s trying to improve the situation.

“He’s trying like crazy to make things work,” he said.

On the conference’s website, one of the statements posted says: “With a new vision for our state and a new plan for economic development, we challenge all professionals to unleash their expectations.”

That set of words is apparently incomplete and should finish with, “by learning how to get free money.”

I don’t care if it’s wrong or right, all I know is this behavior (and I’ll call it that) obviously isn’t sustainable. The government agencies or charitable entities where grant treasures are found will surely run short of riches someday (likely sooner than later).

I’ve heard it said by several local people who hold “prominent” positions in the Houston community that “just because you can get a grant doesn’t mean you should.” Even the math is haywire.

“If you think about it, every one of these agencies has tons of people working for them,” Tottingham said, “and they’re all on good salaries with good benefits packages. If they’re withholding taxes out of everyone’s money to fund all these programs to ‘give you back your money,’ you’re only getting a portion of it back because the agencies probably eating up half of it.

“If they didn’t take all that money, as a city you could probably have a lot more money to use for projects that weren’t tied to the government. It’s a slippery slope, I guess.”

But, as Tottingham said, too many people are now programmed to ask for – and expect – monetary assistance at every turn.

“Whether it be in your home, or city or county government, our first thought is putting our hands out,” he said. “It’s, ‘where can I get some money for this?'”

So what should a city do?

“We’ve all heard the old saying, ‘if we don’t take it somebody else will,'” Tottingham said. “And I think that’s true, because there’s a certain amount of money allocated to give away through all these programs. So until they change the rules nationally and statewide, I think cities are bound to doing that – trying to get as much grant money and hand-outs as they can.”

The bottom line is, the grant train has lost its brakes and now is a runaway that’s eventually going to run out of track and hit a wall. When that happens (and it will), a tremendous number of people are in for a major shock.

“We can only ‘take’ until there is no one to ‘give,'” Tottingham said. “A good question for each of us as individuals, as a city, as a community and as a nation is, ‘what can we do for ourselves?’ The funds from the state and national governments and charitable organizations will not continue forever.

“If we don’t become more self-reliant, we’ll be doomed when those sources are no longer available.”

I’d say the time to begin practicing for the real game is right now.

“If we don’t, it will be too late when the grant money dries up,” Tottingham said. “The U.S. has lasted longer than any nation has in the past, but if we don’t learn something from this situation, we might not last much longer.

“I really don’t know what the answer is, but the discussion has to start somewhere.”

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are posted online at www.houstonherald.com. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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