Thursday, July 7, 2011

Wasting money at every level of government

To understand why our nation is in the financial shape it is in today, you need look no further than our own community.
Months ago, our Rolla Downtown Business Association began searching for a way to attract shoppers to the center city on Saturday. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that goal.
I don't know what alternatives they studied, but I know what they decided to do was start a Saturday downtown farmers market called the Homegrown and Homemade Farmers Market. There's absolutely nothing wrong with having a goal of a Saturday farmers market. The problem is this: We already have a farmers market on Saturday morning. It's located next to Highway 63 in the Big Lots parking lot. From personal shopping there for the last two or three years, I know for a fact that it draws several vendors who offer a diversity of homegrown and homemade goods. Parking is quite adequate, for it is in a parking lot. Visibility is good, because it's next to a major highway.
Going into competition with the Big Lots Farmers Market would be foolish, but that's what the RDBA decided to do. The association decided to try a value-added approach by advertising that the Homegrown and Homemade Farmers Market would include musicians and food sales. The association promised a festival atmosphere.
The attempt to put the Big Lots Farmers Market out of business by luring all the vendors downtown failed on the opening day, May 7. No one showed up downtown; at least there was no one there in the middle of the morning when I went down there with my wife on her birthday to listen to some bluegrass music, eat a bratwurst (we hoped) and buy some plants. We left the empty parking lot and headed to Big Lots where several vendors were set up. We bought some plants.
We didn't go back every Saturday, but we checked from time to time throughout May and June. Every time we went downtown, no one was there; instead, there was a crowd at the Big Lots Farmers Market.
Lonna Sowers, president of the RDBA, told me that the next attempt to lure the vendors downtown would be to buy a tent with a grant. The City Council has applied for a $17,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is certain to get it. In fact, Community Development Director John Petersen said the USDA called the city and offered the money because it is "left over" near the approaching end of the fiscal year. That money will be used to buy the tent. It might be here in August or September.
Are you paying close attention to what is going on here?
1. Government has come up with a "need" and is working to "fulfill" it--even though the private sector is doing a more than adequate job.
2. A federal agency has so much money that it looks for ways to spend the leftovers near the end of the fiscal year.
3. Even at the local level we have developed the attitude that people need government direction and that people can't come up with solutions without the government.
4. Our city officials have bought into the mindset that if we don't take the free government money someone else will, so we might as well get our "fair share."
This is just $17,000, but imagine this scenario being played out in all the other cities, counties and taxing jurisdictions throughout the country.
Meanwhile, the grassroots market is populated every Saturday by people who have bought their own canopy tents with no financial help from the government.
Lonna Sowers and others in the government/business coalition seem to think that the farmers market vendors should be swarming to the festival lots site. They don't seem to understand that the vendors want to make money selling their goods; it is not a hobby, but a business. The vendors like the high-traffic location at Big Lots.
For now, a government/business coalition to co-opt and usurp the market has failed, and I can't help but be amused at the "city folks" and their failed attempt to take over the market of the "country folks."
That said, I'm worried that the next step will be the big stick. I worry that the government/business coalition's only recourse will be to adopt a zoning ordinance amendment prohibiting farmers markets from any location in the city limits other than the downtown "festival lots."

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