Government, Private Sector Linked

It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that someone in our area has been eyeing empty space in the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Center in downtown Wheeling, thinking that would be a great place to open a small store specializing in groceries. With the number of people in the business district growing, it might be a profitable venture.

If you happen to be that person, you’re too late. On Tuesday, Wheeling City Council voted to enter into a lease agreement with Grow Ohio Valley for Intermodal space formerly used by Greyhound Bus Lines. GOV plans to open a “farmers’ market” offering vegetables, meat, dairy products, etc.

“It will be a nice addition to downtown,” Mayor Glenn Elliott said.

Indeed it will.

But the plan is one more reminder of a growing (no pun intended) concern among many Americans about the relationship between government and the private sector.

Ideally, government would neither help nor hinder the private sector, but it does both on a regular basis.

Help is provided in a variety of ways. For example, think of the courts’ growing acceptance of use of eminent domain to buy private property people don’t seem to want to sell. For many years, the right was reserved for public projects such as roads. Now, businesses are being allowed to use it for purely profit-making enterprises.

Or, consider various incentives, including tax breaks, granted to persuade businesses to create new jobs or maintain existing ones.

Here in Wheeling, we have an excellent, recent example of that. Alecto, the California firm that has bought Ohio Valley Medical Center, demanded that Wheeling City Council spend $1.5 million to upgrade a parking garage — and provide $1.5 million to tear down the old OVMC nurses’ residence. Because about 1,500 jobs are involved, council agreed.

But put yourself in the place of Wheeling Hospital, a nonprofit that competes with OVMC. Folks there aren’t too happy about the city’s deal with Alecto.

Downriver in Moundsville, another issue is involved. There, officials want to establish a city-owned RV park. Owners of private RV facilities complain that means taxpayers are funding their competition.

Back to the Intermodal. GOV is listed by the Internal Revenue Service as a public charity. According to a Form 990 filing, GOV’s purpose is “to strengthen Ohio Valley communities, families and residents through growing food, sustainable living and economic development.” In GOV’s eyes, its planned farmers’ market fits right in.

But GOV receives a substantial amount of support from taxpayers. At one point, about a dozen of the organization’s workers were provided by the federal AmeriCorps program. These are your tax dollars and mine.

If you happen to be a small business owner — or someone thinking of opening a little grocery store in downtown Wheeling — don’t bother asking for AmeriCorps help. You’re the private sector. You don’t qualify.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of GOV and its worthy goals. But you can see why some people may have gritted their teeth at the farmers’ market plan.

One could list ways in which government helps the private sector on one hand and hurts it on the other forever. Think about the Section Eight housing program, which helps some developers build shiny new apartment complexes — but is detrimental to existing “mom and pop” rental businesses. Think about massive breaks the domestic sugar industry receives, allowing it to charge consumers more for sweeteners. Think about state programs that aid casinos and racetracks, without providing assistance to other industries.

Well, you get the picture. The list is seemingly endless.

That bothers some people, who think the private sector ought neither to be subsidized nor penalized by government. So intertwined have business and government become, however, that it’s unlikely to change. So, next time you have a great money-making idea, you may want to act before your tax dollars help pull the rug out from under you.

Myer can be reached at: