Last week, as part of its annual O’Bannon Institute, Ivy Tech hosted a panel discussion titled “Economics vs. Atmosphere.” My wife has always raved about the institute, and I figured the subject was a good one for me, too, to get acquainted.

Now I have to admit, I didn’t have high expectations. First, the title of the panel itself sets up a frame of reference, asserting that the two issues are antagonistic, that you can’t have one without the other.

Of course that’s false. As the human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the natural and social environment, there’s no inherent tension. It’s not the environment or economic development. It’s the environment and economic development.

Nurture one and you improve the other

The second reason had to do with the panel’s makeup. The moderator was none other than our John Fernandez, Bloomington’s previous mayor and now a principle with First Capital, a real-estate speculation firm.

The panel was composed of Ron Walker, Lynn Coyne, Morton Marcus and Chris Sturbaum. The BEDC, IU real estate, I-69 and the Bloomington City Council.

Sturbaum, an advocate of “smart growth” (but growth nonetheless), was obviously picked as the foil for the other four, playing the white-hat against the black hats. He did a good job, but there was no way we were looking at a “fair and balanced” discussion, at least as goes pro-growth and growth-skeptic voices. Heck, even Sturbaum runs his own construction company.

It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating that many people believe, people who probably should know better, that “the economy” and “buildings” are the same thing. I’m sure they had the best intentions, but it’s obvious that the organizers of the panel are confused about that point.

More buildings vs. more quality

But I thought I might be wrong when Fernandez threw the first question out to Marcus: “How do we balance the needs of economic growth with community?”

To which Marcus replied: we need to make a distinction between growth and development. Was Marcus about to be on it? Yes, he was. Explaining further, using a personal example, that growth of some things is undesirable, like the growth of a disease.

I was impressed. Maybe my low expectations weren’t justified, after all.

Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Marcus had done an admirable job of delineating the difference between qualitative development and quantitative growth.

But then he shot his own argument down with a tirade of presumption for the new over the old and a fusillade of Eisenhower-era nostrums. The need for wider roads. The need for “urban renewal.” The need for twice as many places to buy the same Chinese hair dryers.

The need to make Bloomington just like Indianapolis, for the people who want to live in Indianapolis but are too lazy to move there.

More people vs. more quality

The next rhetorical hand-grenade landed in Sturbaum’s lap. “Who can’t come here?” asked Fernandez. If the problem is too many people, who are you going to prevent from coming here?

The answer, unfortunately, allowed Fernandez’ frame to stand. That frame, an attempt to portray existing community residents as nothing but selfish NIMBYs, should have been dismantled head on.

Because, even if us selfish NIMBYs wanted to, this is America, not the Middle Ages. We can’t build a wall. We can’t stop people from coming.

And because the premise defies rationality, it ignores carrying capacity. Are the occupants of an overloaded lifeboat morally obliged to take on the refugee that will sink it? Just because someone gets on an elevator on the first floor, must he let on another passenger at the 10th, if doing so will snap the cables?

And because, as Eben Fodor said in his talk last month, “The better you make your community, the more people will want to live there, until it is no better than any other place.”

More jobs vs. better employment

Coyne made a regional appeal, scolding those of us who recognize that political boundaries end at county, not regional, lines. He asserted that we also have a moral obligation to add jobs in Monroe County, even crappy ones, if it means that residents of Owen or Greene can commute here and find work.

As a liberal, I agree that we need to do all we can to help out others. But I think a far better way to do that, for the “region,” again, is not to transform Monroe County into Marion County, for those that want to work, but not live, here.

It’s to put those jobs where the people who need them live and vote. The next time a developer wants to plop another strip mall here, perhaps the best course of action for everyone (except the developer) would be to suggest it go into Bedford, Spencer or Bloomfield, instead.

The era of diminished expectations

If there is one thing the community needs, it’s more opportunity to have the growth debate. My earnest side had hoped this would be one of those opportunities, but my cynical side told me it couldn’t.

As usual, my cynical side was right. Luckily, the next session, with George McGovern, was excellent.

Gregory Travis can be reached at .