Waters ignores recent history, labels concerned citizens "conspiracy theorists"

COLUMBIA, 2/13/12  (Beat Byte) --  The man who led the charge to condemn and take Bengals Bar and Grill with eminent domain three years ago is back, this time condemning citizens concerned that City Hall's massive blight decree could lead to more eminent domain.

In a remarkably condescending February 10 editorial, Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters sternly rebuked opponents of the move, at the same time criticizing the main idea behind it:  targeted tax incentives for specific businesses.

Ironically, Waters' over-the-top rhetoric soared over that of the blight opponents he was taking to task.

"A persistent band of conspiracy theorists jumped on the council action as imagined proof that a predatory City Hall is preparing to seize properties from hapless local owners through condemnation," Waters declared.  "They quickly invoked the 'ED' word, alleging the council was paving a road toward the use of eminent domain.  This is nonsense."

Last Monday, Columbia City Council members unanimously approved Resolution R20-12, declaring vast portions of Columbia officially blighted under state law.   Made on strikingly short notice, the resolution drew about a dozen opponents, including Boston-educated attorney Pat Fowler, former Mayoral candidate Sid Sullivan, and several residents whose names have never before surfaced. 

It's not clear how this group constituted a "persistent band of conspiracy theorists," but Waters got other facts wrong as well.   "The council changed the language in its enterprise zone ordinance from 'blighted' to 'an area which contains inadequacies,'" he wrote. 

But that's not true.  Mayor Robert McDavid offered an amendment changing only small parts of the Resolution, including a "Section 8" that didn't exist.

Waters also ignored the lessons of history, both recent and several times past.  

"Nothing in the legal or political landscape gives the slightest indication Columbia government has condemnation plans in mind for private business development," he wrote.

But local businesses used blight decrees and condemnation to twice take land from the black community in the mid-1960s and early 1980s;  and in 2008, Waters was front and center on the move to take Bengals and other private parcels for a new State Historical Society Museum.  (Perhaps that was okay because the Museum was a public development).

Ironically, Waters helped make a case against blight and the program behind it, Enhanced Enterprise Zones.  "The law originally was intended to help redevelop truly blighted, run-down areas," he wrote, a definition that doesn't nearly describe CoMo.  He also accused the City Council of "bending the law," casting even more doubt on Monday night's stunning declaration.  

And though he hedged on specifics, Waters condemned the concept behind the Enterprise Zone.   "The idea of giving certain private companies tax breaks not available to others is inherently bad," Waters wrote.  "Would the company come or stay in town without the bribe?  Will the promised expansion come true?  Worry over tax abatements should continue...."