Just In Time For Fall, The Welfare Queen Is Back

Getting some attention on Friday from Hill District advocates and watchers was an article written by the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (AIPP) and distributed thru email titled “The Hill District Grocery: The long (and getting longer) and sad tale.” This article was then basically redrafted as a Pittsburgh Tribune Review editorial titled Another Central Planning Failure. Since the Tribune Review editorial page links you to the AIPP blog, quotes the AIPP President, Jake Faulk, as its principal analyst and we can assume Mr. Faulk signed off on, if not wrote, the initial blog, I will at times refer to these two pieces as one, so as to avoid confusion in regards to which article I am referencing.

Beginning with the titles, the pieces work hard to pin the tags of “greedy”, “incompetent” and “handout seeking” on the Hill District and the grocery store effort and go into some depth with a standard grocery store financial model to then predict the store’s chances for success and failure. As we approach the fall election, the article invokes the frame of the Welfare Queen, common law wife of Willie Horton, and refers to the eventual employees of the store as “the help”, but there are still a couple of things Hill residents can take away that I will mention at the end of this post.

The article begins with the seemingly innocuous statement that “In 2008 the Hill House Association (HHA) began a renewed effort to attract a grocery store”, but this skips some important context. In 2008 (and I served on the HHA board at this time) the HHA was a member of the One Hill Coalition that secured a Community Benefits Agreement with a number of stakeholders, including the Sports and Exhibition Authority, the Penguins and City and County government. Getting to this agreement was very difficult with challenges both internal and external to the neighborhood and was largely based on the huge pubic subsidy that was being given to the Penguins. However, it was also made possible because of the widespread acknowledgement of the travesty done to Hill District residents in 1955 when the city invoked eminent domain to take tens upon tens of acres of property in the Lower Hill to build the Civic Arena, and in doing so displaced hundreds of Hill District businesses and thousands of Hill District people. The editorial quantifies the public dollars in the project as a bit over 25%, presumably to justify its jurisdiction on this matter, but this number is miniscule in comparison to the cost to this community in the taking of the Lower Hill. The AIPP states its mission is in part to “roll back the size of local government” and says one of its principles is  property rights, but outside of the treatment of Native Americans, what greater sign of big government, central planning and property right violation is there in this region’s history than the use of eminent domain in the Hill District? In public policy terms, I can’t think of a better description for this piece of the region’s history than “greedy”, “incompetence” and “handouts”…

More could be said about the article, but I do think that it brings up the question of what are the actual grocery store projections. As residents we should be aware of the non-proprietary pieces of the information not because of the convenient taxpayer dollar hammer used in the article, but because it is the neighborhood’s collective history that is the store’s chief stakeholder. Knowing what will be expected of us in terms of purchasing, etc. will only help us be informed and ready as community residents and/or supporters of the community to do whatever is necessary to make the store a success. This should not be done on the AIPP or Tribune’s timetable but done in the spirit of collective work and responsibility once the deal is closed.

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