Government playing real estate agent

By Andy Winemiller -

I’m a firm believer in the thought that government should remain as small as possible. At the federal level I want government to supply a battle-ready military, and I want it to print money and provide a federal court system. That’s it.

On the local level government should provide police, fire, streets, utilities and parks and recreation services. The scope of government shouldn’t go much, if any, beyond these basic roles.

Admittedly another role of local government with which I’m OK is building code enforcement. Nobody wants a person to fall through the floor of a local business or a child to get lost in somebody’s grass that is four feet high. However, the government’s role in managing property, especially personal property, needs to stop there.

I remember adopting an industrial park when I held office in Ohio. The park constituted a huge capital investment on the part of the city, and there were few businesses located in it. It namely served as a place to which streets workers would slip away and take naps while on the city’s time.

These industrial parks, which nearly every city offered, were the beginning of what we see today — local governments operating as commercial real estate agents in the name of economic development.

When the economy took its plummet nearly a decade ago it sent local governments scrambling to entice businesses. In Lorain, Ohio, we lost a Ford plant with about a $500 million annual payroll and about 15,000 jobs at the local steel mills. I imagine that Surry County had a similar situation when textile mills and furniture factories shut down shop here.

Suddenly, it took more than just access to interstates (or waterways, in my former case), utilities and a decent community to attract a business. With stimulus money flying all over the place and grants for infrastructure improvements available in the name of economic development, companies wanted more.

Now we are at a point in which a company wants an existing structure that is often paid for by taxpayers, be it through local, federal or state dollars, prior to committing to a location. Surry County Commissioner Larry Phillips says that a lack of formidable structures is the number one reason companies aren’t relocating to Surry County.

Phillips and others say governmental entities must be able to offer a building to entice a company to do business here. I don’t blame Phillips or other officials for this. They are simply playing on the field onto which they were thrown.

Somewhere along the way some county, city or state said, “I know how we can get that company to make their widgets here. We will set them up in a building.” Now it’s become the standard by which any community looking to attract businesses is expected to operate, and it’s a slippery slope toward more government control.

Governments are now real estate agents. Government doesn’t do anything very well, so I think it’s particularly scary that they are now serving in this new-found capacity — a capacity in which they could blow millions of dollars via a stroke of a pen or a vote taken in secrecy.

More than a year ago, Mount Airy made one of these deals. Cloaked in secrecy, the city bought a dilapidated old property. The price tag for fixing the Spencer’s property is, no doubt, well into the millions of dollars.

Of course, Mount Airy can’t simply write a check to fix the Spencer’s property, so that’s why the community is having this debate regarding a redevelopment commission. In other words, the redevelopment move is simply a means to pull funds to pay for a bad decision made by local government officials — a decision about which the public new nothing.

Now property owners in this redevelopment district are rightfully concerned. They simply want to continue to run their businesses, some of which are thriving. They are concerned because, regardless of what commission members are saying, extreme measures such as eminent domain can be used by a redevelopment commission.

The city is pushing a plan down their throats, and the reason for this is that city officials made a terrible decision in becoming real estate agents and particularly in purchasing the former Spencer’s property.

The redevelopment district isn’t about a “gateway.” It’s about creating a means by which the city can pay for repairs to a dilapidated property. Governments should only ever be purchasing property for the purposes of police, fire, utilities, schools or other public necessities — not to play commercial real estate agent. Clearly, they aren’t very good at that role.

By Andy Winemiller

Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at The Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or

Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at The Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or

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