© 2019 Thad Williamson. Authorized and Paid For By Thad Williamson For Richmond City Council.

  • Thad Williamson

Jul 19: Five Progressive Standards for Economic Development Policy

Richmond has a 24.4% poverty rate. That means that (leaving aside college students) about 45,000 people in our city are struggling to survive. We cannot become a thriving City, or a thriving 5th District, if we don’t change this reality.

In the absence of massive new federal or state funding, which no one expects, or tax increases, which no one wants, the only realistic way for the city to change this reality is through equitable economic development: economic development that expands living wage employment, ownership opportunities, and viable pathways to the middle class.

The key question is, “how?”

I believe a sound, holistic economic development policy must focus on the fundamentals: education, workforce development, infrastructure, transportation, and efficient, consistent local government. Localities strong in these areas attract new people and private investment as a matter of course.

In Richmond we must also make an intentional, explicit effort to include those who have been excluded from decades of economic growth. With the winds of growth pushing the City to ever new heights, now is the time to establish rigorous, progressive standards that assure that all residents genuinely benefit. This means guaranteeing that historically excluded groups have equitable access to jobs and contracts, and that where feasible we develop social enterprise, cooperatives, and other business mechanisms that broaden pathways to wealth.

That’s why I endorse rigorous, progressive standards that assure that all residents genuinely benefit from large economic development deals (sometimes known as public-private partnerships). We can set these standards from a position of aspiration, not desperation. Richmond does not have to and must not accept lopsided deals that fail to address our community’s needs.

Here are the five standards I would apply to any economic development project as a member of City Council:

Five Progressive Standards for Public-Private

Economic Development Deals in Richmond

  1. Living Wage Jobs. Richmond city residents, including those currently unemployed, under-employed, or in low-wage jobs should be first in line to get many of the jobs generated by the project. Those jobs must pay a living wage (ideally $15/hr or higher). This cannot be an empty promise or a vague hope, but rather an iron-clad commitment. (The city’s Office of Community Wealth Building and designated partners are well-positioned to play a lead role in connecting city residents to the opportunities and to provide needed trainings, certifications, and other supports.)

  2. Minority Contracts. A robust percentage of contracts in the project (ideally 40%) must go to minority-owned businesses—and where feasible to social enterprises (from cooperatives to B-Corporations).

  3. Affordable Housing. If new housing units are planned, a substantial percentage of those units must be designated as affordable for city residents, meaning affordable for those with income below 60% of the area median income (not the more common 80% standard).

  4. Transparency. The proposal and its mechanics must be transparent so that citizens can understand its structure, and its risks and benefits. Importantly, the taxpayer liability in the project, if any, must also be transparent, under both the worst case scenario and the most probable scenario. This means that projected benefits must be rigorously and independently scrutinized. It also means that projects must not impede the ability of the City to invest in urgent community needs such as school facilities.

  5. Public Support. The proposal should have demonstrated support from a broad cross-section of the community.

In addition, wherever feasible, a robust community benefits agreement should also be part of major projects. Community benefits agreement (common in other localities) help assure that communities in proximity to or impacted by the proposal share in the benefits created by the project.

Proposals that fail to meet these criteria must be revised, and if revision is not possible, they should be rejected.

No project can be perfect, but any project worth committing scarce public dollars to must demonstrably be in the public interest, and specifically in the interest of economically excluded residents.

Richmond is a growing city. We are now at the point where we as a community can set rigorous terms for how development ought to proceed. We have the opportunity in the next decade to harness investments in our city in the service of equity, fighting poverty and building community wealth.

That means setting a clear bar. It means being open to exploring possibilities and if they make sense, going forward. And it means also being willing to walk away if a particular proposal doesn’t make sense.

If elected to City Council,

  1. I will ask the hard questions of any project put to City Council.  

  2. I will listen attentively to the questions posed by district residents, Council colleagues, and the broader public.

  3. I will support projects that are demonstrably in the public interest, and specifically in the interest of economically excluded residents, and reject projects that are not.

  4. When it comes time for an ultimate decision, I will publicly explain my position and the reasoning behind my vote on any contested project.

These are my commitments to the residents and voters of the 5th District. I believe the principles articulated here are rigorous but reasonable, and if applied conscientiously can help us distinguish projects worth doing from projects to avoid.