As I’ve previously mentioned here before, the idea for this column was inspired by my interactions with James and Deborah Fallows while they were conducting research in Greenville, South Carolina, for their book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.” If you haven’t read it, I recommend you grab a copy as it’s an entertaining read about what, as the New York Times put it, “two writers found when they bought a plane and touched down on Main Street, U.S.A.”
The Fallows spent years crisscrossing the country in a little single-engine Cirrus SR-22, discovering that many of the towns that don’t normally make the big media headlines were actually faring quite well. By the time their journey ended they had developed a checklist of traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work, regardless of the size of the community. Third on their list of key signs of civic success is that public-private partnerships are real.
While it’s true that the term public-private partnership has increasingly been tossed around as a buzzword in recent years, even James Fallows initially assumed it was a “euphemism for sweetheart deals between Big Government and Big Business.” The concept is nothing new and the use of public-private partnerships to meet a wide variety of public needs dates back centuries in our nation’s history.
I first learned about public-private partnerships while working in real estate development where it generally implies a project with any blend of public and private investment. These arrangements can take many forms, and the public investment can also include grants, tax credits, or any other form of incentive.
Today, 3P is a term that is broadly applied to any “creative alliance” formed between a government organization and any private entity and can involve a wide range of different types of public organizations such as health care providers, educational institutions, nonprofit associations, community-based organizations, business improvement districts (BIDs), as well as citizens and neighborhood groups. The most important thing to note is that a partnership is a process and not a product, and successfully navigating through the process will result in a win-win for all parties involved.
One of the key findings of the Fallows was that “in successful towns, people can point to something specific and say, “this is what a partnership means” and the more specifically a community can define what their public-partnerships mean, the more success the town enjoys. I met the Fallows while working in Greenville, where the public-school system includes an elementary school for engineering in one of its most economically distressed neighborhoods.
The city runs the school, while local companies like GE, Michelin, and BMW collaborate to create extensive STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs to educate students to be skills-ready for the jobs and careers that await, including those at the companies that provided the curriculum, thus creating a built-in local talent pipeline. It’s a win-win.
According to the Urban Land Institute, by far the fastest-growing arena for the use of 3P is urban economic development. Beginning with the cutbacks of federal urban aid in the 1980s, cities as well as rural municipalities have increasingly sought innovative solutions to boost their economic base and revitalize strategic areas.
Local civic and political leaders, economic developers, and downtown advocates often must improvise in order to meet their city planning and development objectives, and redevelopment projects that leverage public infrastructure investments have largely become the favored vehicles for urban revitalization efforts.
It is not unusual for private developers to shy away from urban redevelopment, which often includes the rehab of historic structures and brownfield remediation. According to the Southeast Regional Environmental Finance Center, reasons for this may be the real or perceived increase in construction costs and contamination cleanup, as well as the additional layers of bureaucracy in dealing with federal, state, and local agencies.
Therefore, as most private developers are usually too risk adverse to pursue these projects without significant public assistance, most urban redevelopment efforts today involve public-private partnerships.
As the City of Tullahoma embarks on its own downtown revitalization initiative, an important first step is conducting a feasibility study, which includes the survey and documentation of its current historic resources and assets.
In fact, the National Historic Preservation Act, as amended, contains five broad standards that must be met by a local government seeking certification in a National Historic Preservation Program, one of which is proving the ability to maintain a “system for the survey and inventory of historic properties.” As previously noted in this column, the revitalization of Tullahoma’s downtown will not occur overnight and will likely take many years of thoughtful and incremental steps in the right direction.