Mayor Turner’s Latest Cronyism

The Chronicle reports that the city will lend $13.9 million to HEB to build a new grocery store near the Museum District. The money comes from a federal grant issued in 1995 to help revitalize downtown. Mayor Sylvester Turner said that he isn’t thrilled about the “deal,” but it will help provide fresh produce to residents of the Third Ward.

As if this story isn’t strange enough, the land is owned by the Houston Community College (HCC). HCC previously sold the land in 2000 for $2 million, and then repurchased it in 2011 for $13.6 million. But HCC never dveloped the land and will now sell it to the city, which will in turn lease it to HEB.

Despite his reticence regarding this “deal,” Turner argues that the city will eventually recover the money and be able to use it on other pet projects without any geographic limits.

Since the $13.9 million has been languishing in the city’s coffers for two decades, it is obvious that it wasn’t needed to revitalize downtown. But rather than return that money to taxpayers, Turner is determined to use cronyism to promote his agenda.

HEB has admitted that they wouldn’t build the store without the city’s help. So Turner can entice HEB with a low interest loan and please low income constituents at the same time. It’s a win-win for HEB and Turner, and a complete loss for taxpayers–the ones footing the bill.

Turner is hardly the first Houston mayor to use cronyism to “encourage” private companies to build what and where the city desires. For decades, the city has used a combination of financial incentives and regulatory threats to control development inside the Loop.

For Turner and his ilk, cronyism is how things get done. Lacking the dictatorial power to command HEB to build new stores where they want, cronyists rely on the carrot and stick approach. They will dangle your money as a carrot to “encourage” the development desired by the city. And when that doesn’t suffice, they won’t hesitate to use the city’s regulatory powers to stop the development desired by private businesses (see the Ashby High Rise as an example).

In the near future, HEB may bring carrots to the Third Ward. But sooner or later, the city will use the stick against them.

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