Can't Buy Me Love

Sometimes love can't be easily explained. Take the affection that skateboarders have for Philadelphia's John F. Kennedy Plaza--better known as LOVE Park. This small park, just across from city hall and home of the bright-red sculpture with four letters--L-O-V-E--stacked in two rows, is the most popular site in all of urban skateboarding.
by | July 2004

Sometimes love can't be easily explained. Take the affection that skateboarders have for Philadelphia's John F. Kennedy Plaza--better known as LOVE Park. This small park, just across from city hall and home of the bright-red sculpture with four letters--L-O-V-E--stacked in two rows, is the most popular site in all of urban skateboarding. A few years ago, you could have found 200 skateboarders there on the weekends. Most of them were the metropolitan area, but some came from afar to glide across the smooth granite, marble and concrete surfaces. Indeed, it is said that some students attended colleges in Philadelphia in the 1990s just so they could do "ollies" every day at LOVE Park. No more. In 2002, the city cracked down on skateboarding in the park (city officials said the skateboarders were damaging the surfaces and endangering pedestrians). Since then, the skateboarding community has been grieving for its lost LOVE--so much so that a California sneaker company recently offered the city $1 million if it would allow the skateboarders back. "This has become more than just a park," the company's CEO said. "It's become a landmark in skateboarding. It's absolutely irreplaceable." Philly's reply: No dice. "Skateboarding and people enjoying this space have become incompatible," said one city official. Some non-skateboarders think the city's wrong in this dispute. They point out that Philadelphia is desperate to attract more hip young people and that, while most skateboarders aren't exactly future MBAs, they are at least young.

LIFE AND DEATH IN BUFFALO

Meanwhile, Buffalo, New York, has suffered from an exodus of its young people for so long that it's causing a disturbing phenomenon: Deaths have nearly caught up with births in the region. For every 10 babies born, the Buffalo News reports, nine funerals are held. "Not only are people leaving the region," the newspaper says, "but it's becoming harder to grow from within." The trends are related. When young people leave a region, they take not only themselves away but their future children as well, and that makes it doubly hard for a region to grow. Only 18 percent of Buffalo's population was between 20 and 34 in 2000, compared with 21 percent nationally, and 16 percent was 65 or older, compared with 12 percent nationally. Result: Deaths are holding steady (at about 12,400 a year), but births are dropping like a rock. In 1993, there were 16,400 births in the region. By 2002, there were just 13,100. In a few years, if the trends continue, the lines will cross and there'll be more caskets than cribs sold in Buffalo.

BONDS ISSUED WHILE U WAIT

Two small Florida cities have stumbled into a business that will earn either your admiration or your indignation: They issue tax-free municipal bonds for far-away projects. The city of Gulf Breeze (population 6,200), in the Florida Panhandle, has floated nearly $2 billion in munis for a hotel in Orlando and resort projects for a Seminole Indian casino elsewhere in Florida, among other deals, the Baltimore Sun reports. Moore Haven (population 1,700), on the banks of Lake Okeechobee in South Florida, has issued $1.2 billion in bonds since 1997, mostly for projects in other places. Why? Because it's profitable and, with some limitations, legal. Gulf Breeze has earned $5 million in fees since 1985, the Sun says. That averages out to $278,000 a year, or about 35 percent of the city's 2004 budget. In Moore Haven, a desperately poor place where many live in mobile homes, city officials proudly point to the things their fees have bought: a fire engine, a dump truck and playground equipment. "It's all legit," the mayor says. "It's a way for the cities to afford stuff. Otherwise, there is no way we could." Well, maybe legit. The Internal Revenue Service is questioning some of the bond deals, not because the money went outside the cities but because the IRS suspects some of the money wasn't used for projects with genuine public purposes.

WHAT THE SALES TAX HATH WROUGHT

Stop 10 people on the street today and ask them this question: "Would you be pleased or displeased to learn that your local government was offering subsidies to Wal-Marts and auto dealers?" Prediction: "Displeased" would win in a shutout. Yet that's exactly what's going on in some areas. Why? Because big-box retailers and auto dealers generate a lot of sales taxes, and that's what keeps localities afloat in many states. As a result, governments are heaping subsidies on retailers to locate just inside their city limits. In recent years, localities in the Phoenix area have dangled more than $300 million worth of incentives. In a recent speech, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said he thought his city should stop offering incentives to retailers and asked officials in other cities to join him. "I am not anti- development," Gordon said. "But how do we justify these upside-down spending sprees? It's destructive. It's shortsighted, and I say close the public checkbook on these projects and let the market dictate where retail development goes." What also bugs Gordon is that governments end up "subsidizing and incentivizing $7-an-hour jobs." But others, such as the vice mayor of Peoria, point out, "A subsidy for an auto mall is not done to attract jobs. It's done to attract sales-tax dollars."

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