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by Jordan Green

ten best

examples of national malaise

Addicted to sprawl

Scanning the news this week, it’s evident that things are breaking down, that policies have fallen woefully short of their desired effects. There are no entrenched powers and energetic reformers in this narrative, just a series of small fiascoes. Take, for instance, a March 5 Triad Business Journal item reporting that the costs of extending water, sewer, roads and schools to support residential subdivisions in Guilford County is greater than the amount those houses will generate in new local taxes. For some reason I’ve never been able to fathom, the city of Greensboro offers water and sewer services to virtually any development in unincorporated Guilford County that requests it in exchange for the right to annex at a time of the city’s choosing. Back during the time when Keith Holliday was mayor, a senior member of the city’s executive office admitted to me that annexation rarely pays for itself. No one in a position of power around here has seriously entertained the idea of reining in sprawl.

Failed leadership

We’ve had our problems with public corruption in North Carolina in recent years — the names Mike Easley and Jim Black come to mind — but they pale considerably when compared to New York State where Gov. David A. Paterson, who inherited his job from a “reformer” who got caught patronizing the services of a high-end prostitute, is under pressure to resign because of allegations he attempted to silence a woman who accusing an aide of roughing her up and then lied about receiving free tickets to the World Series. These personal foibles would be amusing enough if the state of New York were not facing a crushing budget shortfall that threatens to decimate funding for parks, schools and subways.

More failed leadership

In another example of an abject failure of leadership, The New York Times reported on March 6 that Larry Langford, the former mayor of Birmingham, Ala., was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted of accepting $230,000 in clothing, cash and jewelry as chairman of the Jefferson County Commission in exchange for steering $7.1 million in county bond business. In a delicious encapsulation of the hypocrisy at play, the Times reported that while mayor, Langford once dressed in a burlap sack with ashes on his forehead and declared that “Satan is at work in this town” to highlight a rising murder rate. Meanwhile, “Jefferson County, which surrounds Birmingham, teetered on the verge of the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, after an exotic bond deal went sour.”

The jobs that are available

I think all of us would like to think the Triad is reinventing itself as a center of creativity and economic innovation, where jobs are created through gumption, smarts and personal networking in new sectors such as transportation and logistics, regenerative medicine and filmmaking. But the truth, as reported in the March 5 Business Journal, is far more prosaic and bleak: “The jobs that are being filled often fall on the extremes of the employment spectrum — either part-time, low-paying jobs or high-paying white-collar positions that require specialized training, education and experience. And the employer with the highest number of jobs available? Baptist Hospital in Winston- Salem. Yes, the jobs in our urban centers depend on an aging population with degenerating health in the surrounding 10 rural counties.

Leading indicator

I’ve had mixed feelings about the news that Lutheran Family Services is ceasing its refugee relocation program in Greensboro in June. With reports surfacing for more than a year that refugees have found themselves unemployed and desperate following placement, I thought the agency’s role in bringing more of them here was irresponsible. But if you think about it, this is a grim leading indicator: In the past, there were always plenty of low-wage jobs that people from Bosnia, Cuba, Burma, Vietnam and Iraq who were willing to work hard could take. Now, even the low-wage jobs have dried up. And with the drain-off of jobs we’re also losing some of the multicultural vibrancy that has made Greensboro a more interesting city to live in.

Ghost buildings

Some bad news is not new; it’s made worse by the fact that it’s caught in a long-term trend that shows no sign of reversal. The shuttered Michigan Central Station — which looks like a cross between the Greek Parthenon and a scene from “21 Jump Street” — is a perfect representative of Detroit’s past glory and current slow-motion death. A seethrough building among thousands of empty office buildings, theaters, houses and hotels, the Times reports that there are few prospects for the station’s rehabilitation, although there has been talk about making it the Detroit headquarters of the Michigan State Police, a center for international trade inspections and a location for federal and state Homeland Security offices.

Public debt

Meanwhile, all is not well in other parts of the world.

Greek workers and students have crippled schools, hospitals and public transportation as protests unfolded against severe cutbacks in government spending because of a public debt crisis. If there are companies too big to fail, then there also certainly countries too big to fail. The Times reports that German banks have $43.6 billion in exposure in Greece’s debt. If Greece defaults, then what happens to their German creditors? And what happens to larger countries such as Spain and Italy whose debt to more wealthy countries is also leveraged to the hilt?

Commercial real estate trouble

I’ve been hearing about an impending commercial real estate crash for awhile now. Charlotte Observer columnist Mary Newsom lays it out in her blog “The Naked City” reporting from the NC State Urban Design Conference in Raleigh on March 6. Newsom quotes presenter McDuffie “Mac” Nichols as saying that “the credit crisis on housing is nothing compared to what’s coming up this summer over commercial loans,” adding that a large number of loans for commercial development are coming due this summer and many of the projects are failed. Another Nichols quote: “Every mixed-use category is in distress.” And, reportedly, one-third of all enclosed shopping malls in the United States are obsolete. Somehow, I doubt if the Triad is in any way unique, notwithstanding UNCG geographer Keith Debbage’s platitude about Greensboro’s “Goldilocks economy.”

Cringe-worthy antics

Any embarrassments suffered by residents of Guilford County over the conduct of the Greensboro City Council in 2008 and the Guilford County Commission up to about 2006 should be relieved by the spectacle of the Wake County School Board as it abandons socio-economic diversity in favor of neighborhood schools. First, there’s the comment made by school board president Ron Margiotta referring to opponents of re-segregation as “animals out of their cages.” Then there’s NC NAACP President William J. Barber II’s public reference to the board’s “mafia” tactics. News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders reports that veteran civil rights lawyer Al McSurely worried allowed that the true issues of the debate would be overshadowed by “sound bites and name-calling,” and then proceeded to call the school board’s majority a bunch of “clowns.” Now that’s the spirit.

Craven injustice

The News & Observer reports on March 6 that two former FBI agents will undertake a massive review of the SBI crime lab following revelations that the lab withheld test results contradicting an earlier indicating that Greensboro native Greg Taylor had blood on his truck and prosecutors repeatedly told jurors the incorrect information. Taylor was falsely imprisoned for 16 years, and recently released following a recommendation by the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission last month. Two thoughts: 1) Cowardice and pride too often prevent authorities from doing the right thing, and 2) Kalvin Michael Smith, anyone?

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