When I was thirteen years old, on a freezing day in March, standing on the tarmac of my hometown airport, I shook hands with the President of the United States.
President Clinton had been to Alexandria, Louisiana several times before, but his trips were usually unannounced. They weren’t public events or campaign fundraisers; he was just quietly visiting his old friends, almost all of whom he knew from his days as the Governor of Arkansas. True story: In 1998, my father and one of his brothers were playing a round of golf at the Alexandria Country Club, and when they made the turn from the ninth, President Clinton and his entourage pulled up next to them in their golf carts. No one, not even the local newspaper, knew he was in town.
But on that freezing day in March 1996, everyone knew that the President was visiting. Hundreds of people showed up. Air Force One was framed perfectly behind the makeshift stage and podium, but President Clinton was actually forty miles away, visiting Fort Polk in Leesville, Louisiana. So, the crowd waited for over two hours until Marine One descended and the President finally ambled out of the helicopter and onto the stage.
The President could have selected another, warmer, more convenient, and more secure venue for his speech. In fact, he spent that night in Alexandria, after attending a performance of the Pentecostals of Alexandria’s passion play, Messiah. Air Force One sat in Alexandria overnight.
But he chose the tarmac of our local airport for a reason. The airport, which now boasts one of the finest terminals in the country for a city its size, is located in a decommissioned air force base.
For nearly fifty years, England Air Force Base was part of the lifeblood of Central Louisiana, generating more than $100 million annually to its local economy and employing nearly 4,000 people. In 1989, when Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, announced that the base would be decommissioned, the conventional wisdom was that the base’s closure would irreparably devastate Alexandria. After all, between 5-10% of its workforce and an even more substantial portion of its tax base would be gone, permanently, relocated or reassigned to another base in another part of the country or the world.
But Alexandria defied conventional wisdom.
Thanks to the tenacity and the ingenuity of people like former Alexandria Mayor Ned Randolph and, perhaps most importantly, the late Jim Meyer, England Air Force Base was transformed into England Airpark– a dynamic, beautiful, mixed-use community that should serve as a national model for best practices in military base re-use.
And that’s why President Clinton invited the people of Central Louisiana to the tarmac: As the saying goes, we were handed a lemon, and somehow, we made lemonade.
Twenty-two years ago, when England Air Force Base officially closed, local and state leaders were forced to confront an enormous and unprecedented challenge. Like many other cities, Alexandria could have simply annexed the base, but there was a huge risk of failure. Forcing an already cash-strapped city with the burden of extending services to what was, for lack of a better term, a “ghost town” didn’t seem like a viable option, particularly considering that the base’s closure depleted the city’s tax base, threatening its ability to properly serve and maintain existing infrastructure.
Also, at the time, the City did not have the resources or the capacity to engage in a full-scale business recruitment initiative in order to locate tenants for the hundreds of thousands in square footage of newly-available commercial and residential real estate that had been suddenly abandoned by the federal government, and, even if it did, the optics of a city government competing against private property owners for businesses and home owners would have been terrible. There were other issues as well: Much of the decommissioned air force base was a brownfield, which means that redevelopment required money for environmental remediation.
So, instead of the City of Alexandria taking control and ownership over the former air force base, the Louisiana legislature created the England Economic and Industrial Development District (better known as the “England Authority”). Quoting from the enabling legislation (bold mine):
The district is created for the object and purposes of accepting title from the United States of America to any or all real and personal property and improvements included in England Air Force Base and utilizing that and other property, and all assistance available from the United States government and all other sources, to replace and enhance the economic benefits generated by the former air base with diversified activities, including, but not limited to, activities and planned land uses to foster creation of new jobs, economic development, industry, health care, commerce, manufacturing, tourism, relocation of people and businesses to the area, aviation, military, warehousing, transportation, offices, recreation, housing, and conservation, the acquisition of land and improvements, and the construction, operation, and maintenance of facilities, improvements and infrastructure, including buildings, runways, roads, bridges, drainage, and utilities.
La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 33:130.352
It was a creative, ingenious solution, and it worked. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit England Airpark, you know that the England Authority has done a tremendous job. Again, President Clinton recognized this way back in 1996.
There’s just one enormous problem here, and in many ways, this problem is the result of the England Authority becoming a victim of its own success.
At the risk of offending some of my best and dearest friends, I strongly believe the England Authority should be dissolved, immediately, and that England Airpark should finally, once and for all, be annexed into the City of Alexandria.
The problem, of course, is that the England Authority, by its very nature and design, is antithetical to the fundamental definition and basic function of American democracy.
England Airpark is a neighborhood. People live and work there. And in America, we elect the leaders who represent our neighborhoods. If you live or work in England Airpark, you are represented by ten appointed board members, two of whom, believe it or not, are selected by a powerful conservative lobbying organization, the Chamber of Commerce. And if you work for the England Authority, you are not protected by the same civil service laws provided to practically every other public-sector employee in the entire State of Louisiana. See Slowinski v. England Econ. & Indus. Dev. Dist., 2002-0189 (La. 10/15/02), 828 So. 2d 520.
Twenty-two years ago, when the air force base was shuttered and there was a real possibility that its closure could have decimated the entire Central Louisiana economy, it may have made a great deal of sense to create a “district” to accept title of the base’s properties from the federal government.
But at some point, we need to be willing to unfurl the “Mission Accomplished” banner. At some point, we need to realize that when an unelected board of political appointees is given authority over an entire community, however well-intentioned and well-qualified they may be, it is still, nonetheless, an affront to the democratic process and is likely unconstitutional.
There is another glaring problem with the enabling legislation, and it is time for our elected officials to address it. Quoting (bold mine):
There is hereby created a body politic and corporate of the state which shall exist in perpetuity and be known as England Economic and Industrial Development District, hereinafter referred to as the “district”. The district shall be composed of all of the territory located within Rapides Parish. The district shall be a political subdivision of the state as defined in Article VI, Section 44(2) of the Constitution of Louisiana. Pursuant to Article VI, Sections 19 and 20 of the Constitution of Louisiana, the district, acting through its board of commissioners, the governing authority of the said district, is hereby granted all of the rights, powers, privileges, and immunities accorded by law and the Constitution of Louisiana to political subdivisions of the state, including but not limited to the power of taxation, the power to incur debt and issue revenue and general obligation bonds, certificates of indebtedness, bonds and certificate anticipation notes, refunding bonds, and the power of taxation, subject to the limitations hereinafter provided.La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 33:130.351
The law empowered an unelected board of political appointees, in perpetuity, with “all of the rights, powers and privileges” afforded to every other political subdivision of the state. And then, it said (bold mine):
The exercise by the board of the powers conferred by this Subpart shall be deemed and held to be essential governmental functions of the state. As the exercise of the powers granted hereby will be in all respects for the benefit of the people of the state, for the increase of their commerce and prosperity, and for the improvement of their health and living conditions, the district shall not be required to pay any taxes, including, but not limited to, sales and use taxes, ad valorem, occupational licensing, income, or any other taxes of any kind or nature, or assessments upon any property acquired or used by the district under the provisions of this Subpart, or upon the income therefrom, and any property acquired or used by the district under the provisions of this Subpart and the income therefrom, and any bonds issued hereunder and the income therefrom shall be exempt from taxation by the state and by any parish, municipality, or other political subdivision of the state. The district shall not be deemed to be a public utility and shall not be subject in any respect to the authority, control, regulation, or supervision of the Louisiana Public Service Commission or any other regulatory body of the state, or any political subdivision thereof.La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 33:130.354
In other words, it is not only controlled by unelected appointees in perpetuity, it is also un-taxable and completely immune from regulation. Some of my libertarian friends may read this and think it sounds like a utopia, but in practice, it should be easy to understand how this arrangement undermines accountability and transparency in government. And while it is interesting to note that the “district” itself is not required to pay any taxes, the truth is: The entire airpark was built with taxpayer dollars.
I want to make this abundantly clear: I am not and would never disparage the individual members of the England Authority or the good men and women who work for them. With very few exceptions, they have all done a tremendous job, and as a community, we should all be thankful for their public service. The men and women who serve on the England Authority are not doing so because they crave power or prestige; there’s no money involved here. They serve because they were asked to serve and because they legitimately want to make Central Louisiana a better place.
The England Authority was created to ensure the sustainability and viability of a critically important part of our region, all the while shielding the City of Alexandria from the very real financial risks and liability it could have assumed. And the England Authority succeeded, wildly.
Despite the language of its enabling statute, I have a hard time believing that anyone, twenty-two years ago, would have imagined that they were actually creating a new city within a city. The England Authority wasn’t envisioned as an unelected City Council; it was established with the hope and expectation that it could save a decommissioned air force base. The task seemed so tall that the legislature didn’t even contemplate a mechanism for “sunsetting” the authority.
But they should have, and this year, I hope they will.
Aside from the fact the England Authority is facially undemocratic, there are other compelling and important reasons why Louisiana should dissolve the England Authority: Regional economic competitiveness requires and demands a unified and collaborative strategy. Today, the England Authority acts as its own independent and ultimately, for all intents and purposes, unaccountable economic development agency.
It competes against the City and the community it was created to serve: Offering potential businesses severely discounted leases, essentially free infrastructure, and a whole host of other incentives, all underwritten by taxpayers, and it can do all of these things without ever supplying citizens with adequate and appropriate returns on their investments. It pains me to say it, but the leadership at the England Authority somehow has been convinced that it is entirely acceptable and appropriate to compete against the actual local government for state funding and business recruitment. In so doing, they potentially distort the market, they undermine the public trust, and they actively promote fragmentation.
It is inexcusable and myopic. This isn’t about “competition;” it’s about cannibalism and “mission creep.”