Why we should celebrate residential buildout, and focus on jobs

Burlington economic development (BEDC)You’ve probably heard Burlington is running out of land for residential growth – something called “buildout.” What you may not have heard is that’s a good thing for our bottom line.  Residential development costs about $1.40 to service for every $1 in tax revenue we get. Development charges only cover about 80% of the costs of this growth, and can’t fund items like hospitals for new residents. Thus, the more we grow on the residential side, the more your taxes will go up. That’s exactly what we’ve seen in Burlington – years of residential development have delivered some of the highest tax increases on record. Alternatively, for every $1 in tax revenue from industrial, commercial or institutional development, the city makes about 60 cents.  That helps fund the services you need. You’re paying more than your share: our tax base is 75% residential, versus 25% commercial. We need more balance between the two, or your taxes will continue to rise. But we’ve seen a huge drop in commercial/industrial tax growth since 2011 – growth is now less than a quarter percent annually. We have hundreds of acres of vacant and undeveloped employment land. There’s no commercial buildout in Burlington. We need to focus on filling this space, and take the pedal off residential intensification.

We need to get serious about attracting jobs to BurlingtonHits & Misses: Council and staff recognized two years ago that attracting new businesses and creating jobs for Burlington residents is the city’s “burning platform.” Council directed the Burlington Economic Development Corporation to shift away from being a self-described “social club” to actively wooing businesses to Burlington, and set aggressive job targets.  More than a year ago, the board approved restructuring the BEDC into a land development corporation. But progress has been glacial. While municipalities around us are courting businesses, BEDC still spends too much time and money on networking activities and general marketing. Over $144k is spent on events, versus $40k on “investment attraction.” BEDC still doesn’t have a significant sales force on the phone selling businesses on the benefits of locating in Burlington. This, despite almost  $600,000 in extra investment in 2013 and proposed for 2014, bringing the city’s annual contribution to $1.3m. I was the only councillor to vote in 2013 that some of the city’s investment in BEDC go toward a dedicated business development (sales) person. I will do so again.

The Road Ahead: We need to get serious about attracting jobs and businesses to Burlington, or they will go to other municipalities who are, as we speak, aggressively chasing the same tax dollar. The days are long gone when Burlington sold itself, based on cheap land and easy transportation. BEDC needs to get out of the networking lunch/event business altogether, and develop a dedicated sales force wooing business to Burlington – our competitors are. Council needs to set measurable goals and targets, and hold the BEDC to them. The go slow approach won’t work; the longer we wait, the more we risk losing jobs that go to other communities.