Does Community Matter?

Date: 16 Apr 1998 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Does Community Matter?

by David Morris
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

July 16, 1998 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

In the larger scheme of things, the news item the other day seemed a small story. A committee of the Metropolitan Airports Commission(MAC), which runs the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport, recommended that the airport not renew its lease with one small shoe shine company and instead offer that space to another small shoe shine company.

But there was much more to this particular story. The soon-to-be-evicted business is comprised of six elderly African American men. The owner, Royal Zeno, age 79, has been shining shoes at that spot for 36 years, as has at least one of his co-workers. The company that may take over Zeno’s spot, as well as three new shoe shining locations the airport is opening, is 14 years old, runs shoe shine operations at 9 other airports, is based in Kentucky and is owned by a white woman.

The talk shows have had a field day. Public reaction, according to Executive Director Jeff Hamiel is running overwhelmingly against MAC’s action. “We’re being called heartless, cold, callous”, Mr. Hamiel tells me. He considers the criticisms unfair. A few years ago MAC adopted a 100 percent “business approach to decision making.” Every service, every space is put out to bid. The staff crafts an objective, quantitative process to evaluate bidders. In the case of the shoe shine bid, Zeno’s score was the lowest of three submitted. “We cannot be in the business of giving our friends a lifetime opportunity of being in the terminal”, Hamiel insists.

To Alan Weinblatt, Zeno’s attorney, MAC’s scoring process is arbitrary, incomprehensible and capricious. He thinks Zeno might have a legal case. To me, it is not the legality of MACs decision making process that is suspect but its morality. More specifically, its lack of any consideration for that intangible yet very important value we call community. Why shouldn’t we be able to at least take into consideration the fact that one enterprise is locally rooted and has a long standing and favorable relationship with its local customers?

An airport is a business dedicated to rootlessness and mobility. But in Minnesota the airport is also a public enterprise, governed by 15 commissioners appointed by elected state and local officials. The airport belongs to a geographic community even while it caters to national and international travelers. Why shouldn’t community be a factor in its decisions?

MAC’s approach is not unusual In the name of objectivity, almost all local and state government agencies are forced to award contracts to the “lowest responsible bidder”. Price is the determining factor. Rootedness, community service, local ownership, are not taken into consideration.

This approach is the norm, but it is not universal. A growing number of localities are fashioning rules in which community matters. At least 10 city councils, including Baltimore, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and Seattle, allow their agencies to pay a slightly higher price for goods or services bought from local suppliers. Palm Beach, Florida has designed a “town serving zone” into which retail stores are allowed only if “not less than 50% of the anticipated customers will be’town persons’.” The courts upheld the town’s right to “limit displacement of businesses serving the Worth Avenue neighborhood by larger, retail establishments.” Vermont’s land use law, Act 250, allows a citizens board to thwart the construction of a very large retail store if it will have a substantially negative impact on local businesses.

Weinblatt says there have been no complaints about Zeno’s shoe shining service. His attitude? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He recommends a negotiated agreement. Hamiel, on the other hand, worries that if MAC makes an exception for Zeno, all occupants will think they have a guaranteed spot in perpetuity at the airport.

The two perspectives seem reconcilable. MAC’s Commissioners could renew Zeno’s lease at its present location, while awarding the lease for the three new shoe shine spots to another bidder. Such an action might reduce MAC’s lease income by $10-20,000 a year, a trivial result given MAC’s expanding operating budget that already exceeds $100 million a year.

More importantly, the Commissioners should direct the staff to fashion a scorecard in which community counts for something. How about adding a category called “rootedness” and awarding points based on how far from their enterprises the owners live and how long the enterprise has been in operation at the airport? Along with customer service, this factor could be given great weight in the evaluation.

The public outcry over a small shoe shine operation at the airport could encourage not only MAC, but all Minnesota public agencies, to revisit the way they make decisions. In the future, neighborliness and rootedness and continuity should be part of the mix.

David Morris
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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.

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