Bob Bernick’s notebook: Economic development deja vu

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While in recent history the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business-advocate group, has worked well, in harmony, with city government, the “violent” protests Tuesday over the inland port ended up in the 6th-floor offices of the Chamber, just north across 4th South from the offices of Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the City Council.

And Wednesday, Biskupski, Democrat, refused to attend a joint press conference with GOP Gov. Gary Herbert because Derek Miller – whom Herbert appointed as chair of the Inland Port Board – was going to speak at the press conference.

Miller and Herbert touted the inland port board’s actions in being open to various points of views, in fact seeking them out in public meetings as long as those attending were respectful and orderly.

In her own press conference following the governor’s, Biskupski said while there is no excuse for violence, the protesters “evolved” into violence over frustration that the board was not listening to them.

Miller is the president of the Chamber, and that was why many of the protesters left a peaceful inland port gathering on the grounds of the City/County Building, crossed the street, and took over the Chamber offices, reportedly urinating on some of the floors.

Thursday morning, a group of protesters called a press conference themselves, blaming city police and Utah Highway Patrol officers for causing the violence by pushing protesters out of the Chamber offices, and then out of the lobby of the building.

While the main complaint of the “violent” protesters last Tuesday is over the state’s development of an inland port – and the state taking property in the Northwest Quadrant that Biskupski objects to – some of the protesters Tuesday also object to what may be called rampant capitalism combined with a heavy-handed government.

There is some real irony here – as there often is in politics.

Let’s look back at the history of the Chamber of Commerce Building and the Salt Lake City government.

Here is a column I wrote for the Deseret News in 2002.

You can see that way back in 1981, when what was called Block 53 – the block just north of the Salt Lake City/County Building – part of the city-sponsored redevelopment of that block was the promise of residential housing, a promise that was not fulfilled by the chosen developer.

In fact, the developer, who got a $3.3 million subsidy from the city – when the city took over private property on the block – probably couldn’t have even built the current office building on the block’s southeast corner if the Chamber hadn’t stepped up and agreed to sign a long-term lease.

And the whole 6th floor of the office building has been the Chamber offices ever since.

So Biskupski et al., and some of the protesters are upset that the state via the inland port is taking over private property in the Northwest Quadrant, stepping on city government toes and against the wishes of some citizens.

But there were those who were against the city taking over private property on Block 53, and giving a big tax subsidy to wealthy developers who promised housing on the block, but never constructed any.

The housing component was salve promised opponents back in 1981.

In fact, the whole Block 53 complex hung on building a large office structure that financially depended on the Chamber’s agreement to become the major tenant.

Now the Chamber president is being hounded as a bad guy for taking the volunteer job of overseeing the creation of the state-sponsored inland port.

Economic development pushed by governments has often seen conflict – for government officials and the private entities they subsidize, under the argument of overall citizen good, almost breeds it.

What was good for the goose – the city back in 1981 – apparently is not good for the gander – the state today.

The Chamber likely made a city redevelopment of Block 53 possible 38 years ago, and it is now a target of state development’s inland port in 2019.