Mt. Lebanon’s joke & Murphy’s bad advice

Mt. Lebanon’s joke & Murphy’s bad advice

It just might be Allegheny County’s longest-running economic development joke. But the reality is far from funny.

“It” is a prime parcel of property at the south end of the South Hills community of Mt. Lebanon at the corner of Washington and Bower Hill roads. And it’s a prime example of what government interventionism doesn’t get you.

This saga dates back to 2002. It was decided that a parcel owned by the Mt. Lebanon Parking Authority should be developed. But time and time again, throwing good money after bad, sufficient private development dollars never materialized. And the public has paid the price.

The situation turned so sour that in 2013, a second developer, Zamagias Properties, defaulted on state loans it used to acquire that property. Which left taxpayers holding the bag for $1.78 million in loan guarantees.

But wait, it gets even more perverted: The very same Zamagias Properties that defaulted was allowed to keep the property. Don’t try this at home.

Slow-forward to this summer.

A new Zamagias proposal to build high-end condos at the site has been, you guessed it, stalled. A Zamagias official tells Mt. Lebanon Magazine, the official house organ of the community, that a lawsuit by the owner of a neighboring property has halted progress.

Do note that “progress” is a relative term. The site has seen some earth-moving and now sits shielded by a construction fence. Sometimes the weeds are high. Other times the fence redefines dilapidated. Welcome to Mt. Lebanon!

The magazine reports that “Zamagias is looking at other options, including considering offers from other developers to purchase the property,” an option the company official said would take about a year to close.

Another year. Ho-hum.

This project should serve as a textbook case for how local governments should leave economic development to the private sector. It’s attempt to command the economy has been an utter embarrassment.

As the Allegheny Institute noted nearly five years ago:

“Had the municipality simply sold the parcel off to the highest bidder and used the zoning process to guide development, (it) would already be enjoying an expanded tax base instead of staring at a still-vacant lot on (its) main thoroughfare.”

Instead, five years later, this fence-ensconced vacant lot is an overgrown monument to the hubris of pick-a-winner government economic development and the insanity of attempting the same thing over and over and over again.

There are no winners in such a continuing charade. And, invariably, taxpayers keep paying the steep price by having their pockets improperly picked.

Here’s some sage advice to the leaders of Swissvale, Rankin, Braddock and North Braddock:

Don’t listen to Tom Murphy.

The Post-Gazette reports that the former Pittsburgh mayor urged political leaders in these eastern communities to “Kick the door down” in pursuit of, as the P-G put it, “a new look” and “a big development.”

Murphy, of course, was the fella who wanted to bulldoze a large swath of downtown Pittsburgh two decades ago to satiate his central-planning whims.

That was stopped — but not before his more limited exercise in command economics crashed and burned.

In astounding disregard for anything resembling sound public policy, Murphy had the audacity to tout his supposed successes and urged a gathering of 50 political and business leaders to push ahead with their visions even if they don’t have the money.

“Imagine you have the money,” Murphy is quoted as saying.

The former mayor bragged that, again, as the newspaper narrative went, “Pittsburgh could have accepted its decline in the 1990s but he found ways to finance a new vision.”

Let’s see, there were the taxpayer-financed failures at Lazarus/Macy’s and Lord & Taylor (the latter of which eviscerated the historic charms of an old Mellon Bank building).

Don’t forget, either, the bait-and-switch of the North Shore Connector.

Then, of course, there was Murphy’s nose-thumbing at voters — who rejected his Stadiums Tax at the polls — by packing the board of the Regional Asset District to drain money for a purpose never intended.

Wow, now there’s behavior to emulate, right? Sorry, but no.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).