Bureaucrats v Innovators

Here’s a nice piece from the Wall Street Journal about bottoms-up and top-down recovery efforts in two tornado stricken towns, Tuscaloosa Alabama and Joplin Missouri. Apparently, Tuscaloosa is taking the top-down approach, while Joplin is more bottoms-up.

That means that in Tuscaloosa, city officials see themselves as the center of the redevelopment efforts. They want to redesign and rebuild the city to their liking. They want to be the heroes.

In Joplin, the approach is much more practicable. The city officials are doing their job — issuing permits and such — and then getting out of the way to let private citizens do their job.

Instead of encouraging businesses to rebuild as quickly as possible, Tuscaloosa enforced restrictive zoning rules and building codes that raised costs—prohibitively, in some cases. John Carney, owner of Express Oil Change, which was annihilated by the storm, estimates that the city’s delays and regulation will cost him nearly $100,000. And trying to follow the rules often yielded mountains of red tape, as the city rejected businesses’ proposals one after another.

“It’s just been a hodgepodge,” says Mr. Carney. “We’ve gotten so many mixed signals from the get go. The plans have been ever-changing.” Boulevard Salon owner Tommy Metrock, one of the few business owners to rebuild on Tuscaloosa’s main thoroughfare, McFarland Boulevard, says the restrictions created “chaos” as people put their livelihoods on hold while the city planned.

Joplin took a dramatically different approach. According to interviews with local business owners, right after disaster struck the city council formally and informally rolled back existing regulations, liberally waving licensing and zoning mandates. It even resisted the temptation to make “safe rooms” a condition of rebuilding.

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