Economic Development Requires Investment, Not Miracles

Economic Development Requires Investment, Not Miracles

Denton enjoys some of the familiar advantages that made many small frontier towns into booming hubs of commerce. We sit at the junction of two interstate highways, on one of the busiest North-South trade routes in North American. We are home to two major public universities, which bring us thousands of students, academics, and visitors each year. Our culture is both unique and welcoming, which makes it easy to feel at home here.

Unfortunately, these advantages can skew our perspective about Denton’s success. Some folks seem to believe what that spectral voice told Kevin Costner: “If you build it, they will come.” To them, since Denton was a special enough place to attract them here (along with perhaps their employer and their favorite shops) then of course the miraculous pull of the place will work its magic forever.

This view discounts the years of hard work and investment that built the Denton we enjoy today. As early as the 1800’s, town fathers published pamphlets and placed newspaper ads far and wide to attract new businesses and citizens. The University of North Texas, for example, was not dropped onto the town square by a tornado. A group of prosperous citizens paid its early expenses, provided land, and lobbied for a State charter. Texas Woman’s University has a similar story. These efforts and others were part of a deliberate push to make Denton the “Athens of Texas.”

Beyond historical interest these examples show that “economic development” and “public-private partnerships” aren’t new concepts at all. They are modern buzzwords to describe what civic-minded people have always done. Similarly, the revitalization of Denton’s square in the 2000’s was the direct result of spending city and county resources to improve infrastructure and encourage businesses to locate there. There is no magic to it—just that old formula of vision, hard work, and the judicious application of resources.

Even so, Denton also has one key disadvantage—we lack an Economic Development Fund large enough to compete with neighboring cities. We chose long ago to spend that money in other areas. Predictably, the same folks that naively credit past success to mere twists of fate today oppose further public investment into economic development. Rest assured, other North Texas towns aren’t making the same mistake. Most cities our size have millions in dedicated funds which they use to attract new businesses, which in turn mean more commercial tax revenue and relief for residential tax payers.

I’ve been asked, “why give that business a handout, when they will build here anyway?” First, because they will NOT build here anyway. They will build wherever is best for their bottom line. Starting or expanding a business is an expensive and tightly budgeted operation. Every dollar counts, and timelines are short. In city budgeting, though, our focus is on long term, stable tax revenue. So just when a business is counting every penny, a city can use a small cash incentive or short-term tax relief to facilitate what may become millions in new tax revenue over time. Secondly, why take the chance? If a small tax relief package convinces a company to add millions of taxable value to vacant, ag-exempt land, that’s an easy choice.

This is why I have consistently pushed to invest more in Denton’s Economic Development Fund. We are gaining momentum in this effort, and I am hopeful that the City Council will approve new funding sources by the end of this year. And not just your tax dollars. Just as they always have, the Denton business community donates generously every year to the Denton Economic Development Partnership.