When John Stromberg ran for mayor in 2008, he stood out for his calls to make our Shakespeare economy an economic success.
He talked about economic development and the importance of living-wage jobs. He pushed for promoting Ashland as a sustainable city and said he would “provide a financial decision making structure that allows the Budget Committee to responsibly control city spending.” Ashlanders believed his promises and made him mayor.
Until 2008/2009, the city relied heavily on the Ashland Chamber of Commerce for much of its economic development activity. In return, the Chamber received generous city tax revenues. There were detailed objectives, specific reporting metrics and performance measures to gauge how effectively our tax dollars were being spent each year.
To counter the bleak economic headwinds facing our town at that time, the city decided to take a more active role in economic development. Responsibility went back to the city with the establishment of the Economic Development Program. Now focused on promoting tourism, the economic development goals and performance measures outlined in the previous Chamber contact disappeared from their new contract although total funding levels to the Chamber stayed about the same.
Fast forward to today. Our Shakespeare economy is in real trouble. Our budget has doubled — the mayor and council haven’t controlled city spending. We have a deficit both now and forecast a number of years out. Economic development, creating more living-wage jobs and the idea of economic diversification long ago lost priority and focus.
Since the Economic Development Program took over in 2011, taxpayers have committed over $1.1 million to this goal with few results. The objectives, performance metrics and accountability that secured and protected our city’s economic future before 2009-’10 have disappeared.
According to local press reports, many businesses are struggling and many are for sale. Some, like the Outdoor Store and Granite Tap House, have been forced to close. There is scarce evidence of new employers coming to Ashland and the city has lost jobs; OSF and Brammo have moved jobs to Talent, Plexis moved to Medford. Special Economic Zones remain virtually empty due to onerous regulations, soaring taxes and fees, e.g., the Croman Mill project still sits undeveloped after nine years. Potential employers couldn’t afford to build. Instead of incentives, the city put up barriers.
And what did the city do to help local businesses make up for losses last summer? They offered free parking, a gesture that doesn’t address the underlying problems. The city needs to take meaningful steps to help our business community, including:
- Make economic development and the creation of living wage jobs an essential city goal.
- Update and improve the city’s economic development goals that haven’t been updated since 2011.
- Hold the Economic Development Program accountable or shut it down.
- Lower the cost of entry for businesses wanting to come to Ashland by offering incentives to innovative new companies.
- Lower taxes, surcharges and fees and remove onerous rules and regulations to allow businesses to prosper.
- Create a Business Development subcommittee with business experts to produce a policy of best practices for Ashland.
It’s time for Ashlanders to hold our elected officials accountable — the economic future of our town is at stake.
Susan T. Wilson of Ashland is treasurer of Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability. From the Mail Tribune.