OPINION: Small cities may not benefit from stimulus

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Published: March 9,2009

Small cities may not fully benefit from the economic stimulus package if monies are not allocated properly. Whether the goal of the stimulus package is to quick-start the economy or create sustainable growth, funds to small cities must meet their most pressing needs; otherwise the benefits could be negligible. Here’s why.

Unlike large cities, smaller cities simply don’t have the resources to take full advantage of the stimulus package. For example when large cities are asked to identify shovel-ready projects, they can usually refer to a database of projects that can both meet funding requirements and further their comprehensive plan. In most cases, these projects have already been scoped, engineered, designed and cost estimated. All that’s missing is the funding.

By comparison, small cities are like mom-and-pop stores. We somehow manage to succeed despite our unknowing, and for us identifying shovel-ready projects often starts with reviewing some 10 year-old study that was done by someone who’s no longer around, or simply calling an impromptu staff meeting to gather everyone’s opinion about what projects we should consider. Small cities seldom keep a running tab on planning projects, and we’re less likely to identify the “right” project as the one that has the greatest impact on our community. All of which highlights our weakness as small cities vis a’ vis the stimulus package: we simply lack access to experience and expertise to maximize the benefits of the stimulus package.

Not surprisingly, what small cities need from the stimulus package is a team of experts that include planners, urban designers, engineers, architects and analysts, people who can come in and assist with a diagnosis of everything from the state of our infrastructure, to the state of our economy, and then provide long-range planning and forecasting assistance. This type of assistance would enable small cities to not only rebuild, but to rebuild in the most sustainable way.

Expertise of this kind would be especially helpful on the Gulf Coast where cities are already engaged in another type of rebuilding, that from Hurricane Katrina. Upcoming stimulus funds could have an enormous impact if they’re used to compliment two programs that are already in place here, the FEMA Public Assistance program and the Katrina Supplemental CDBG program. Perhaps our biggest challenge on the Coast is coordinating the efforts of these various programs so that they compliment, rather than compete with one another. Our other challenge is integrating them into our daily routine and avoiding the pitfalls that can come from stacking or layering recovery packages. Problem is, nearly four years out from the storm, with our small, weary and overmatched staffs, we stand a far greater chance of overlooking opportunities than we do of capturing them all.

The President said it best when referring to the stimulus package: we need to move swiftly but wisely in our use of stimulus funds. What better way to do that than to provide small cities with the same public/private expertise enjoyed by larger cities. In the end our greatest sin would be to poorly invest the funds that the next generation must pay for.

Moss Point Mayor Xavier Bishop contributed this op-ed column for the Mississippi Business Journal. For a public official or newsmaker to contribute an op-ed column, contact MBJ managing editor Ross Reily at ross.reily@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1807.

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