The ‘curated’ marketplace?

The ‘curated’ marketplace?

There’s a curious phrase that has cropped up in the government-controlled plan to rejuvenate the government-directed plan that was the original SouthSide Works in Pittsburgh.

That phrase is “curated” development.

The long-in-the-tooth retail, entertainment, office and residential complex is getting a multimillion-dollar makeover after nearly two decades. There’s a new “owner” and a new strategy – less retail (that, in a very large way, struggled to gain a foothold at the heavily taxpayer subsidized site), more residential and more open public spaces.

It’s a $37 million makeover at the facility that saw a good deal of retail “churn,” if not outright failure.

By the way, the word “owner” is in quotation marks because while there is a new owner for what sits on the land, the land itself – a 34-acre former steel mill site on the banks of the Monongahela River on the South Side’s south end – continues to be owned by the government.

In this case, that’s the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh, which attempted to command the economy at the site now as then. And the property remains in URA hands because, as the URA itself notes, that generates the kind of cash that it needs to maintain its command economy efforts.

And make no mistake, it’s the authority, a quasi-government agency, that keeps running the show. That is, as in selecting what company gets its blessing to attempt to fulfill its command vision.

As Robert Rubenstein, the URA’s director of special projects, told the Post-Gazette:

“Retail is a tough thing. It’s just not here in Pittsburgh; it’s nationally. It’s continually evolving and needs to be meticulously curated.”

Translation: Central planning.

So, it’s government’s job to be, whether directly or by proxy, in charge of selecting, arranging and presenting retail to the public? It’s the government that can do a better job than the free market?

The ‘curated’ economy might be the new nomenclature but the concept long has been so ubiquitous in economic development that more than a few misguided generations believe it to be the norm.

It should be anything but.

Its more recent manifestation can be seen on Pittsburgh’s North Shore in that conglomeration of cookie-cutter buildings born out of sweetheart government deals.

And it soon will be seen in Pittsburgh’s lower Hill District, on the tract of land that once hosted the old Civic Arena. Expect much of the same blah architecture from Command Central, yet again the product of government officials and a baron of sport singing a duet of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

But it’s not government’s job to chose and locate the proverbial butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, no matter what fancy algorithm it and its favored lock-step developers might have created.

For no slick computer computation can possibly begin to address the infinite permutations and vagaries of this thing called the marketplace.

Government attempts to command the marketplace by those with the hubris to think, first, that they can do so and, second, that they should, are as futile as attempting to place saddles on cats for squirrels to ride.

That government-types continue to think they know best and that their “meticulously curated” retail is the best chance for success elevates economics ignorance to lofty and embarrassing heights.

And all those cats running around with half-on saddles dragging squirrels with their feet snagged in the stirrups are not a pretty sight, either.

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