Over at the Land Use Prof Blog, property scholar Matt Festa has a good discussion of the implications of Pfizer’s decision to close down its New London headquarters for the ongoing debate over the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. As I explained in this post, the construction of this Pfizer facility was at the center of the firm’s successful efforts to lobby for the condemnations that eventually resulted in the Supreme Court’s controversial decision upholding “economic development” takings in Kelo v. City of New London.
Festa suggests that this experience, as well as other cases such as the notorious 1981 Poletown condemnations where some 4000 Detroit residents were forced out of their homes so that General Motors could build a new factory, may lead local governments to be more skeptical of economic development condemnations that depend on a single big firm for their viability:
Politicians and planners might be more cautious about hitching their redevelopment wagons to one big private entity. I’m as enticed as anyone by the idea of revitalizing a downtown/waterfront/etc. with a grand scheme that involves jobs, tax revenues, public-private partnerships, mixed-use development, walkable urbanism, transit, and the creation or enhancement of public space. But if the plan is based around promises from Pfizer, or GM, the incoming sports team, or any other single private entity or group, then the whole plan risks failure if the private actors decide to go elsewhere . . . When these plans fail to deliver, both the eminent domain power and the public fiscal resources are wasted.
I hope he is right. But I fear that this analysis may be too optimistic. The Kelo and Poletown takings occurred in large part because politically influential corporations (GM and Pfizer) lobbied for them in the first place. One of the designers of the Kelo development plan described Pfizer as the “10,000 pound gorilla” behind the taking (quoted in this article, pg 266). If the true purpose was to benefit these firms rather than promote development that benefits the general public, future “politicians and planners” might not be deterred from undertaking similar actions in the future merely because the promised long-term development could fail to materialize. To be sure, voters may eventually punish them at the polls. But, as I argued here and here, years are likely to pass before the project’s failure becomes clear. By that time, public attention is likely to have moved on to other issues, and the politicians who originally approved the taking may no longer even be in office.