Friday, May 28, 2010

Shut Down Unified

A business owner could lose his livelihood (see story below) because his customers break the law or otherwise create problems for the community. I don't think this is right, but if we are going to go down that road, let's be consistent and close down Racine Unified.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

City Discrimination

Two recent news stories. Park 6 might lose its liquor license for various problems in and around the club. And the city is considering an ordinance that would allow a local commission the power to investigate and punish perpetrators of housing discrimination. Unrelated stories?

Not in my book. To the best of my knowledge, the owner of Park 6, Thomas Holmes, has not committed or been accused of any crime or misdemeanor. Again, to the best of my knowledge, Holmes has taken many steps to protect his customers and the public. He checks his customers for weapons and he employs security guards. Even so, some of his customers have caused problems repeatedly such that the police are frequently called to the club. His customers are almost all young and black.

Holmes may lose his liquor license. His crime? He serves alcohol to young black people. Again, Holmes has not been accused of any alcohol related offense such as serving after hours, serving minors etc... No, he serves black people. And here is what nobody is willing to say publicly - large numbers of young black people are more likely to cause problems or commit serious crimes than say, the octogenarians bingo convention, or even the club or bar that has mostly white customers.

So Holmes' problems with the city result directly from his decision to serve young black people. By going after Holmes, the city is in effect enforcing a blacks only prohibition policy. Yes, the city essentially has a separate and unequal alcohol policy.

Now to the other story. The city is preparing to hammer anyone who they find guilty of housing discrimination. As a landlord, this is scary stuff. We need to be careful about who resides in our homes. I recently rejected a woman who wanted to rent an apartment from me. We had a bad feeling, confirmed by people who knew her. We rejected her, officially because she had pets. She has since died of a drug overdose. I remember thinking I was glad she was white, insofar as I would not likely be accused of racial discrimination.

Anyway, leave the discrimination business to the city. If you do it like the city does, you might wind up in jail or with a crippling fine.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

UNIT Review

New Racine Alderman Eric Marcus is taking a look at UNIT (unified neighborhood inspection team) and their fee and appeal process. The Racine Post has an article on the subject, read it and the comments here. My purpose here is to continue the conversation.

For starters, I give Marcus credit for taking a fresh look at UNIT. In a nutshell, it seems that he is looking for compromise, seeking to give property owners one warning per year. My problem with the UNIT fees is that they aren't fees at all but citations pretending to be fees. The city likes this semantic cleverness because they can generate revenue while bypassing the courts which tend to be costly.

Marcus suggests that we still have the right to appeal to the courts, citing a Milwaukee case. I disagree. We have no recourse to the courts concerning our fees. Our appeals go to the executive branch, and if Marcus' proposal becomes law, to the legislative branch, not to the courts. It is true that one could sue the city if you have a spare 50K. I hope that is not what Marcus means by the right to appeal to the courts.

Marcus also suggests the in-house appeal system he is advocating will be more efficient. I have no doubt he is correct. A summary judgement by city officials with a conflict of interest, coupled with a presumption of guilt by citizens denied the right to appeal to the courts, will no doubt be more efficient. But does it protect the rights of citizens?

Of greatest concern to me is Marcus' citing of the Milwaukee case. This case has been used previously by Alderman Greg Helding to justify the city's actions while ignoring the obvious - that these are not fees but fines. Can we replace speeding citations with vehicle speed "inspection fees?" Citing the Milwaukee case gives alderman at least plausible legal cover. Yes, you can probably get away with this legally. But should you?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Know Thine Enemy

In the comments section of a Racine Post article on KRM, read it here, author Dustin Block wrote:

"The problem is the people with the loudest voices don't benefit from KRM. They have cars and jobs, don't live off of State Street in Racine, and have little interest in the city's future success. Meanwhile, people with the most to gain can't organize their voice into a cohesive message, or aren't willing to take the risk."

I think Dustin Block is wrong insofar as the loudest voices are calling for KRM, such as the Journal Times, the Johnson Companies, the mayor and most Racine politicians as well as the Racine Post. I also think he is wrong in assuming that the poor in Racine will benefit from KRM.

But what is most striking to me is Block's self proclaimed omniscience about people who have cars and jobs and don't live near State Street. If your one of them, and you oppose KRM, then you obviously - to Block anyway - have little interest in the future success of Racine. You obviously don't care about the people living near State Street, who are, in many cases, black.

It must be wonderful to have the ability to read the thoughts of other people, even massive numbers of people whom you don't even know. I don't have that ability, sadly. But Block does. As a result, he needn't bother confronting their actual concerns and objections to KRM. He knows what is in their hearts; selfishness and racism I can safely infer. Stated concerns about cost overruns, high taxes, inflated ridership and development projections etc... are really just a socially acceptable "code" for "We got ours and we don't care what happens to the poor black people."

I think Dustin Block is well intentioned but mistaken in his KRM advocacy. But Block is not so charitable towards you or I. Not only are we wrong, but we are bad people with sinister motives. You may not know that about yourself, but Block knows you better than you know yourself.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Q and A on Racine Development Proposal

The JT has an article, read it here, about the city's plans for the Walker Manufacturing site just north of downtown Racine.

From the article; the city plans to spend up to $5.5 million in TIF funding and an additional $10 million in developer incentives to create $74 million in new housing. "Now we're putting the City in the role of general contractor" said City Development Director Brian O'Connell who added "We really believe this is what we have to do to bring this site to market in these economic times."

Is there a housing shortage in Racine? Isn't our population declining? Why isn't the private sector interested in building on prime lakefront property? Could it be that taxes are too high? How has the city performed on other real estate dealings? Why should big real estate developers get 21% of their projects cost paid for by others? Could "these economic times" be trying to tell us something? Would anyone other than the city hire the city to be their general contractor?

These are just a few of the questions that should but won't be asked or answered by city officials. So I will answer them. There isn't a housing shortage in Racine. In fact, there is a housing surplus. This is what happens when people move away and don't take their houses with them. Yes, Racine's population has been declining. The private sector will not foot the entire bill for a huge housing project in Racine for any number of reasons, chief among them that they can't make money because of a housing glut and high taxes in Racine. On taxes, Racine has the highest property taxes in the county, or to put it another way, the greatest building disincentive in the county. The city's dangling of $15 million should be acknowledged as evidence that they are aware that taxes are now so high that nobody will build in Racine without a handout. Regarding past performance on development ventures, the city has failed repeatedly and most of the city's TIF's are losing money. There is no reason to think this project would fair any better. Big developers are no more deserving of tax breaks than is the person that fixes his roof or remodels his kitchen, the difference is developers schmooze with politicians and give them campaign contributions and the regular Joe doesn't. "These economic times" are trying to tell us not to build additional housing and not to build a typewriter repair center either. And lastly, nobody in their right mind would hire the city as a general contractor. But then, I rarely accuse city officials of being in their right minds.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Trade Secrets Exposed

Free Racine readers may know that I own a retail business in downtown Racine. I tend to separate my business interests from my political interests, but on this occasion the two are somewhat intertwined.

Every so often I hear rumblings that I am engaged in unfair or at least unfriendly business practices. The allegation typically goes something like this: I send spies into other retail businesses, I steal their ideas (lines, prices etc...) then I carry the same line with a lower price. I have reason to believe this silliness is happening again and I will use this as a teaching moment.

For starters, the accusers in these situations have some explaining to do. In order to buy products and or lines and avoid duplication and or undercutting other retailers, I would need to know beforehand every product and line being sold and at what price they are being resold by every nearby retailer. This would be a full time job and a complete waste of my time.

So instead, here is my secret that I will freely share with other retailers. I base my purchasing decisions without any regard to other retailers. Instead, I try to meet the needs of my customers. This is a tried and true retail strategy - give the customers what they want.

More secrets: There are only so many ways to make your offerings attractive to people who may freely choose to spend their money elsewhere. Among them are good prices, quality, quantity, and good service. These tend to be our focus. Whenever possible, we will purchase from the source. This involves traveling to other countries and avoiding wholesale markups. The problem with this strategy is that you have to buy large quantities to make it worth your while. Sometimes it is hard to move enough product to make this worthwhile. So what we do is take our show on the road. We sell at festivals, fairs, we do fund raisers at hospitals throughout the midwest. We can't simply sit in our store and hope for customers.

I realize that not everyone has the resources or knowhow to jet around the world looking for good product. Not everyone has cultivated the relationships that we have over the years to allow us access to markets outside Racine. Not everyone had the foresight, resources and luck to buy a large building that allows us to implement our strategy. Now I am not apologizing here. We have worked hard, we have taken advantage of opportunities, we have made sensible decisions for the most part, we have created a store and an atmosphere that attracts customers who are willing to part with their money for our stuff.

My accusers are making a huge mistake. Instead of focussing on their own business, they are getting worked up and distracted over what I am doing. I can't help but think this will lead to internal neglect of their own businesses and possibly a toxic attitude and atmosphere that will negatively affect customer relations.

Another mistake I will call the static pie fallacy. It goes like this: There is only so much money being spent downtown, so any money spent at my store is money being taken from potential customers in your store. The mistake is the assumption that the pie, or the money being spent downtown is a constant. Not true, the pie can grow. And I am helping it grow by attracting customers to my store. The customers who in some cases drive long distances to come to my store might just notice yours as well. And this works both ways of course. In short, my business threatens no other businesses. Rather, it helps other businesses, and theirs mine. This is why businesses congregate near other businesses. If they were hell bent on avoiding competition they should open a business far away from potential competitors.

I want downtown businesses to thrive. It will help my business in turn. The best way to make that happen is to focus 100% on internal operations, honestly assess strengths and weaknesses, and forget about what your neighbor is doing. In short, we will all be better off if you, quite literally, mind your own business.