The Downtown Privatization Folks Are Wrong – Burlington’s Downtown Economy Is Healthy

This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1,2, 3, 4, are here.

Folks who support the Downtown Privitization Plan will tell you our downtown economy is struggling. Yet what they don’t tell you is that while Burlington Business owners have seen profits grow by 20% in real value since 2008, downtown workers have not shared in any of those profits.

The many pro-business/anti-worker folks (along with the powerful Burlington Business Association) supporting the city’s rushed Downtown Improvement District, a plan that does absolutely nothing to meaningfully increase democratic participation or offer inclusion to marginalized voices, will tell you that this privatization plan needs to happen. They will offer the same arguments they used when trying to sell us the ongoing $22-million-public-funding mall debacle.

They will tell you that Burlington’s economy, and Church Street, are dying, and the only way to save our entire city is not by making sure everyone has enough money to afford basic necessities so they can support local businesses, but rather that we hand over even more control to wealthy non-Burlington landlords and non-Burlington businesses.

Why is it that Burlington is a good enough place for many of these folks to make money, on the backs of workers and renters, but not a good enough place for them to live, raise children, and spend said profits in?

The data, however, doesn’t support their doom-and-gloom claims for business owners (for workers and renters, that’s a different story for another day). In fact, Burlington’s economy is very stable and has been growing well (20%) since the Great Recession, particularly when we account for weakened unions, runaway healthcare costs, growing income and wealth inequality, and stagnant wages for most residents.

Meal, Rooms, and Alcohol sales have grown by 69% when factored in for inflation.

The picture is much less rosy when we consider Retail and Use taxes, which have been hit hard by many factors, including the problem that most workers pay over 40% of their post-taxed income to rent.

Sales and Use taxes have decreased by 50% when factored with inflation.

It looks like maybe the Burlington economy, while not a magical beast that can defy national and international trends of wealth inequality and global capital ravishing local economies, has been quite consistent.

The truth is that since 2005, when accounting for inflation, our economy has shrunk by 1.1%.

Since January 2009, Burlington’s retail and food economy have grown by 20% overall, so why again do we need to hand over power to the few folks who have actually made money since the 2009 Recession?

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4 thoughts on “The Downtown Privatization Folks Are Wrong – Burlington’s Downtown Economy Is Healthy”

  1. Charles, You have done some excellent analysis in this post and the other one “Most small business owners don’t live in Burlington.”

    I’d like to encourage you to submit them to VTDigger commentary asap before the election. They print articles ranging from 400-800 words.

    Can we share this on the website and FB page for Vote No on 4?


  2. Thank you for the thoughtful commentary on this issue. I am not sure I agree with you on all points, but community dies when these kinds of discussions disappear.

    I support the idea that a change in the way the downtown area is marketed and managed is necessary. As a frequent visitor to our neighbors up north in Quebec, I am always amazed with how sharp and cohesive the tourist experience is there. For example, go to a little town over the border, Coaticook, and you can’t go anywhere on a weekend without seeing kiosks of maps, weekend events, etc. The entire downtown area is truly special here, however we are inadequately supporting it.

    That all said, I don’t know what the alternatives would be to accomplish a more vibrant and inclusive downtown. I am interested in learning what our options could be, and taking those to anyone that might be able to make them happen.

    Dr. Nicholas Pittman
    Owner of Tribe Eyeworks and Burlington downtown resident
    32 Church Street

    1. One solution that Philadelphia instituted was a local income tax, so that folks who make lots of money in their city can’t take it all out with them to the suburbs at the end of the night.

      The problem I see is 1) not enough investment through taxes from the state, businesses, and 6-figure Burlington workers. 2) Not enough investment in human services and low-income housing to support our most vulnerable populations. Two solutions, through democratic institutions, that keep Burlington safe for everyone. Unless the DID succeeds and goes the route of many other Downtown ‘Improvement’ Districts, where ‘downtown ambassadors’ that harass and jail low-income folks until they leave the area.

      Morally, I prefer the first one, where we recognize that the many folks who work or own businesses in Burlington are incredibly wealthy and it’s their civic duty to give back democratically through higher taxes.

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