Corporate Colonies

A number of America's governors were hailed as courageous policy innovators in the '80s. In the '90s, some of them are acting like corporate toadies.

With Gov. Jim Folsom leading the charge, Alabama last year agreed not just to buy a $30 million site near Tuscaloosa for a Mercedes-Benz plant, but to train local workers, teach them German, and then permit Daimler Benz to pay off its entire $300 million plant cost through a 25-year exemption from state income taxes.


And now, Virginia's new governor, George Allen, has acquiesced to virtually every demand of the Walt Disney Co. as it eyes a site in Prince William County, 35 miles from Washington, for the firm's next Anaheim- or Orlando-scaled development.

In and around the village of Haymarket, (population 375), on some of Virginia's most exquisite rolling farm countryside, Disney would build a new city encompassing an American-history theme park plus hotels, offices, shopping malls and 2,500 houses for workers. Some 9,000 people would live and work there, and up to 30,000 visitors a day (at $30 a pop) supposedly would be attracted.


Heaven forbid that Disney would have to pay its own bills. Governor Allen proposes $158.6 million in state-backed bond money and outright funding. Roads would be widened. Employees would be trained. Advertising would be subsidized. Schools, water, sewage, utilities, police, jails, solid waste and fire-prevention facilities will be provided.

But Governor Allen would impose no legal liability on Disney to repay the extra public expenses, even if the development should flop (as Euro Disney, outside Paris, is now failing). The state's only payback is expectation of tax revenues generated. It's a terrific deal, says the governor: "Disney's America can and will be the first step in Virginia's renaissance."

The new theory of development, notes Washington land-use lawyer Edward McMahon, is that "instead of requiring developers to pay for the cost of their development, now we're going to pay them to maximize their profits."

But the cost to the placid beauty of rural Virginia will be humongous, starting with the "crudscape" of hotels and motels and gas stations, fast-food outlets, T-shirt and junk-souvenir shops, water-slide parks, bars and non-stop strip development sure to spring up on the periphery of Disney's development.

Then there's air quality. The Washington region is far from attaining goals required under the Clean Air Act, including sharp reductions in traffic-generated air pollution. Park-and-ride lots at transit stops, new bus and HOV lanes, business-run car and van pooling, parking charges and rush-hour tolls are being planned.

But the Disney development, drawing 30,000 visitors plus thousands of workers onto the roads each day, will exacerbate the problem immensely and cause stringent lifestyle changes across the entire Washington citistate.

Disney may try to sue to find parts of the Clean Air Act unconstitutional. "What they're banking on is that no one will have the nerve to enforce the act -- which will lead to its abrogation," says Mr. McMahon. "If we can't hold the line in the nation's capital, can it be held anywhere? There are huge national implications here."

How, one wonders, could we have come to this point -- so susceptible to gross exploitation? Some say it's jobs -- but Northern Virginia has little unemployment. In large measure, it's greed -- for all the new income to an area -- and our ignorance of history.


Disney's proposal, writer-composer Richard Squires suggested in the Washington Post, is part of a national and global trend toward corporate colonization. Firms like Disney and Daimler Benz operate in a style reminiscent of the British East India Company of past centuries -- sending emissaries on secret missions to find the right mix of resources, then pouncing on the site and returning the profits back to headquarters.

In the case of Virginia, the Disney corporate strategists found proximity to the Washington tourist trade, an international airport (Dulles), an interstate highway, cheap land, almost non-existent state and county land laws, and pliable political leaders.

The indigenous economy of the area will be swept aside. Tourist attention will be drawn away from the real history around the Capitol and White House, Mount Vernon, Monticello and the civil-war battlefields. And the region will be left with what Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation labels a "road rash" of cheap development.

As such scenarios get repeated across the country, the time is ripe for a populist-style revolt. Citizens, in league with environmentalists, preservationists and regionalists, need to blow the whistle on corporations ready to rape our landscapes and plunder our tax bases. We will need tough land-use laws, like Vermont's, requiring a broad process of regional approval before major facilities get sited.

And we will need, too, to bring to account the politicians who seem so anxious to prostrate themselves before the colonizers.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.