Sunday, October 16, 2005

NIM City

Keith Debbage and Russell Smith wrote in this morning's News & Record about the many newly incorporated municipalities (NIMs) in the Triad (another name for them is exurbs). We have gained 15 of them since 1990. They write,

Triad residents have effectively voted with their feet by relocating to NIMs that offer a reduced tax burden, a lower cost of living, cheaper housing costs and minimal governmental interference . . . . they provide good schools (even though many are grossly overcrowded), strong neighborhoods, open space and residential subdivisions where children can ride their bikes in the street without fear.
Sounds like Nirvana, doesn't is? And it mostly is for the people who live there. But it isn't good for everybody. They go on,

Substantial numbers of mostly affluent and highly skilled workers are opting to leave large, established cities for either private gated communities or newly formed government entities in the suburbs. Many of these folks are highly creative and talented and contribute significantly to the local labor market and tax base. Some policy makers have even suggested that the end result of such a brain-drain is that the larger cities of a region may be vulnerable to a declining tax base, deteriorating public schools and diminished public services if they are unable to consistently attract the most talented workers.
D'ya think? (Isn't that pretty much what happened to dozens of major cities in the 60s and 70s?)

Luckily, that doesn't seem to be happening (yet) to the Triad's cities, despite the rise of local NIMs.

But it might, unless our cities are able to find ways to make themselves attractive to those "highly creative and talented" people. Debbage and Smith finish,

. . . a key challenge for the Triad continues to remain getting all our community's oars to row in the same direction. The future health of the region depends on it, and a balkanized political landscape makes the challenge that much more rigorous.
But people leave the bigger cities precisely because they want to row their own boat, don't they?

Obviously, I'm a proponent of keeping more of us here in one big trireme, as a better way to promote not only our regional interests, but our well-being as members of a community.

If the smartest of us are scurrying off to private, semirural nirvanas while our cities become economic and social sinkholes, it's very unlikely that the Triad will be able to generate enough economic oomph to compete with the likes of Charlotte and the Triangle.


Anonymous said...

They aren't the smartest or most "creative"- they're merely the most selfish and lazy. People who are committed to their community (like Mr. Wharton and David Hoggard) don't head for the hills when they see something they don't like; they get involved and set about the task of fixing things. The NIM folks just cut and run and hope for the exclusionary power of economics to keep the "undesirable element" from following them. Actually getting on a school board task force, attending a public meeting or even voting in a local election is just too much work.

As for their "smarts," the far-flung exurbs are beginning to see the chickens come home to roost as energy prices rise. It's important to understand that the entire exurban way of life, in unwalkable communities far from even the most bare-bones public transportation, is reliant on cheap oil.

If it's any consolation, the Triad is not alone in the flight of the selfish from core municipalities. A quick scan of the major dailies in NC finds a whiny exurbanite self-righteous about gas prices in Clayton, outside of Raleigh, which is not a NIM, but it's one of the exploding Triangle exurbs where those who live off the fat of the Triangle's prosperity flee to contribute as little back as possible in taxes.

Of course, this individual now wants the State Government to intervene in the gasoline markets to insulate him from the consequences of his own choices, and further, he naively assumes there are no tradeoffs such as decreased road safety that externalizes costs through greater traffic fatalities and injuries.

The authors of this article (Couldn't find it on the byzantine N&R website) are right about the dilemma facing the metropolitan region in terms of tax-base. But let's not call the out-migration of the selfish a brain drain. The best and brightest aren't leaving Greensboro, Winston, and High Point for the dull conformity and isolation of the Triad exurbs. When those folks feel the need to spread their wings, they go to DC, Austin, the Bay Area, Boston, etc for a way of life that can't really be found in the Triad.

David Wharton said...

The N&R unfortunately doesn't post Debbage's monthly column -- too bad; he usually writes great stuff.

I'm guessing that most exurbanites are looking for a safe and pleasant place to raise their families and get their kids a good education, and there's a moral argument to be made for that, too. I don't want to villify them -- I just want them to stick around. I know many personally who contribute to the community with time, effort, and money.

That said, I do very much admire the people I know in Greensboro who are staying around and laboring in our little urban vinyard -- people like Donna Newton, Patrick Downs, Dorothy Brown, Jennifer Burns, Nettie Coad, Diane Davis, Deborah Haro, Laura Jackson, Mojgan Jordan, Peter Kauber, BB Knowles, Joyce Lewis, Darlene McGriff, Chuck Newell, Carl Phillips, Bob Powell, Marsh Prause, Gloria Rankin, Todd Rotruck, Mable Scott, Randy Shepard, Marie Stamey, Ann Stringfield, Mildred Tucker, Goldie Wells, Joyce Williams, and Greg Woodard.

Most of them I'll bet you haven't heard of, but all of them are working hard to keep their neighborhoods viable -- them, and a lot more like them. Most of them have been doing it for a lot longer than I've lived here.