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'Nice' isn't free, but it's worth the price

Joel Garreau, in his landmark 1991 book on suburban development, Edge City, introduced the world to the concept of "nice."

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Nice, as he described it, is a hard-to-measure quality that attracts corporate offices, high-tech factories and other enterprises that pay good salaries, demand few services and contribute generously to the tax base.

Nice communities get them; not-so-nice ones don't.

"What is included in Nice?" Garreau wrote. "Schools with astonishingly high average SAT scores. … Country clubs. Athletic clubs. Waterfronts. Scenic vistas. Large lots. Abundant parks. Horses."

We could argue all day whether or not Hernando has reached this elevated state. But I can tell you it's a lot closer than it was 21 years ago, when the county started charging impact fees on new construction.

At the time I arrived two years later, it was hard to ignore the absence of first-class public facilities that factor heavily into niceness. We lacked adequate parks, and the ones we had lacked softball fields, playgrounds and tennis courts; library shelves were sparsely stocked; the schools were poorly rated.

Since then, impact fees (now about $9,200 for each single-family home) have paid for at least four new parks and financed two new libraries. They have equipped our firefighters and deputies and helped with the huge task of building enough roads and schools to keep up with population growth.

Better school buildings contribute to better instruction, I believe, and are least partly responsible for the "A" grade the district received from the state last week.

I bring this all up because of an economic stimulus plan the County Commission is scheduled to discuss Tuesday that calls for cutting impact fees by 25 percent.

That is not the main thrust of the proposal, said Dudley Hampton Jr., president of the Hernando Builders Association; the cut is a requirement to allow county residents to tap into a $20-million state fund for first-time home buyers.

Most of this money will be used for existing houses, not new ones, meaning it would help cut into the county's vast backlog of unsold homes, Hampton said.

County Administrator David Hamilton, among others, disputes this, saying an impact fee cut would encourage more building and add to the glut.

As much as I feel for our longtime, local builders, I suspect he's right. But the main problem I see is that reducing impact fees would be a public boost to our economy's greatest weakness: its overdependence on housing.

As we now see, the real estate market is subject to devastating ups and downs. Even when it was up, our reliance on housing created low-paying service and construction jobs that, according to a 2006 study by economist William Fruth, drove Hernando's wages to the very bottom of the nation's urban areas.

Our leaders now seem to agree that we need to build a solid, diverse economy, which, as Garreau wrote, requires building a solid community.

When businesses owners look at opening operations in Hernando, I want them to see what I see. I want county leaders to be able to tell these recruits what I tell people who still think of Hernando as the underfunded community I came to 19 years ago.

"No," I say. "Actually, it's pretty nice."

'Nice' isn't free, but it's worth the price 07/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 14, 2008 7:37pm]

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