By Scott Robertson
It was as predictable as the sun rising in the east. Bristol, Va., is raising taxes and considering cutting services, and a populace that had been generally quiet while the local government plowed ahead on an ill-advised shopping center development is now lighting the torches and sharpening the pitchforks.
It began when Northeast Tennessee developer Stuart Taylor got together with some Kingsport city government officials and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey to put together a bill that would incentivize the creation of shopping centers in Tennessee’s border counties. Sevier County had bloomed with such a system in place, and with Tennessee so dependent on sales tax dollars, it made perfect sense.
Sadly for Taylor, his anchor tenant, Bass Pro Shops, was lured away to a Bristol, Tenn. development named “The Pinnacle,” being put together by Steve Johnson literally on the Tennessee-Virginia state line.
In neighboring Bristol, Va., the Tennessee move caused panic. Bristol went to the Virginia General Assembly to get a similar measure put in place to allow the town to build a competing center on the Commonwealth side of the line five miles northeast of The Pinnacle. Those sales tax dollars, Bristol reckoned, needed to be shortstopped before they could head over the line to Tennessee.
It would be easy to call what followed a comedy of errors, were it not so tragic. We won’t go into tedious detail, but let it suffice to say that Bristol, Va., mortgaged its future on bonds it planned to pay off with revenue generated by the dozens of stores to open in its development, aptly named “The Falls.”
The city had no experience in the world of developing commercial real estate, but it tore down a small mountain of rock, gave away the expensive, newly flattened land, and suddenly was in the development business.
Bristol, Va. used virtually every penny it had to spare. But commitments from retailers stubbornly refused to come. At one point, when it became obvious Bristol was tapped out without the first brick having been laid, the general assembly was called on again, this time to bail out the project.
Northern Virginia’s elected officials, who already give up a portion of their tax receipts to help support education in the relatively impoverished southwest portion of the state, were furious to hear that Bristol was investing that money in shopping centers instead of schools. They turned Bristol down flat. But then the governor was convinced to step in. He did so reluctantly, telling The Business Journal, “when I came into the governorship, I had to deal with a situation where millions of dollars had already been spent. We risked the threat of losing all of that money and the threat of losing thousands of new jobs.” So, as it turns out, he threw Virginia’s good money after Bristol’s bad.
When the governor bailed out Bristol, he was told Bristol had 25 letters of intent from potential Falls tenants and that, “once Cabela’s has gone vertical with its building, other stores will jump on board.”
That was more than two years ago. Cabela’s is open. Lowe’s is open. Zaxby’s is open. A really, really nice gas station/convenience mart is open. That’s what the taxpayers of Bristol got for allowing their government to mortgage their future. Those are the thousands of jobs.
The restaurants that had committed to The Falls pulled out earlier this year, but we are told a nail salon is coming to take their place. So that’s good. That’ll help.
Meanwhile, Bristol is talking about cutting firefighter positions. That’s what happens when you gamble the milk money in Vegas. Bristol speculated. Bristol gambled. Bristol lost.
The reality is that so long as Johnson Commercial Development can develop the land that adjoins The Pinnacle on the Virginia side of the state line, there’s no good reason any retailer would want to locate at The Falls instead. The Pinnacle has hard traffic counts from dozens of stores already in place. What can The Falls offer to compete?
It’s hard to have sympathy for the citizens of Bristol, Va. as their services are cut and their taxes begin to rise. The foolishness their government perpetrated against them was not carried out in secret. The citizens had every chance to demand their government get out of private sector speculation and limit its spending to roads, schools, law enforcement, fire protection and other legitimate actions. For the most part, however, the citizens did nothing and said nothing.
Now frustrated citizens are demanding the town change the name of the development to something more positive than “The Falls,” as if doing so will solve all the problems created by years of bad decisions. As Joseph de Maistre first said (in a quote that has also been attributed to Lincoln, de Tocqueville and Jefferson), “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite.” The citizens of Bristol, de Maistre would say, have the government they deserve.
Changing the development’s name now won’t matter, of course. What’s done is done. The saddest part is that Bristol could have stopped the insanity at several points along the way, but refused each time, going to more and more trouble to make more and more trouble. Now, having gone to extravagant lengths to commit fiscal suicide, the town is now realizing that, contrary to the lyrics to the theme from M*A*S*H, suicide isn’t painless.
If there’s any justice in this, it’s that Bristol, Va. has earned the pain. It’s entirely self-inflicted.