Lately I've been feeling like a pre-creepy Michael Jackson. You know, the dude with the Afro who could Moonwalk.

The planning and the damage done

Half a century ago, California realized it had created a problem. Through an intensive system of government suburban-automotive subsidies, lawmakers had created an intensely lucrative market for land speculation -- far beyond the traditional cores of California's cities. In the hopes of efficiently channeling rural residents into the city for shopping, cultural activities and employment, they began building an elaborate network of automotive highways.

And, in the hope of building that rural population base, which would come into the city and thereby vitalize both, they extended traditional urban services, such as water and sewer, far beyond the city center.

The result was a love-letter to the God of Unintended Consequences. The highways, instead of funneling people into the cities, became a backwards conduit out of the cities, particularly for middle class and affluent white Americans.

And so begat the dominant urban form of American cities: a necrotized inner core surrounded by a donut of suburban cul-de-sacs, shopping malls and highways.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions

The same planners and real-estate interests that had championed the city-draining highways earlier now realized they had to do something to mitigate the damage done. And if they could do so in a way that boosted their own bottom lines, even better.

And so was born Tax Increment Financing (TIF), an urban planning tool promoted by the planners as a way to save the inner city from the planners' last plan. TIF's main weapon? A guarantee to any developer of an inner-city parcel that the taxes paid on whatever improvements made to that parcel, would only by spent by the city on that parcel -- and not on any other.

Imagine if the only thing that the government could spend your property taxes on were on improvements to your property. That should give you a basic idea of how it works.

The basic idea was a sound one. Developers needed an incentive to redevelop blighted inner-city urban brownfields. And one way to do that was to guarantee the developer that, if he made a million-dollar investment, he wasn't going to be paying taxes on that investment to build a school or a hospital, somewhere else.

Which, translated into Hoosier, means pave everything

That was California in the late 1950s. Like virtually everything else, Indiana came late to the TIF game. Worse, when Indiana did get the TIF-religion, it was in response not to the needs of its decaying urban rustbelt cities but as a reactionary counter to Reagan-era cuts in federal support -- a reaction that soon morphed, herded by real-estate interests, into state subsidies for shopping mall development.

By the mid 1990s, nearly three quarters of all TIF projects in Indiana were being used not to redevelop an inner-city core but to finance new suburban shopping centers far on the fringes of our cities.

Almost exactly backwards from the original intention.

Almost.

The rural and the profane

Monroe County, despite being one of the state's most progressive counties (perhaps because of it), embraced TIF with a vengeance. At first it was a tool used putatively correctly by the city of Bloomington, particularly over the city's downtown area, as well as the urban brownfield where the once-giant RCA television plant stood.

But Indiana's TIF law allows not only urban municipalities to set up TIF districts, but also local county governments, as well. And it is this loophole, a bit of economic pornography, that led not only to Indiana's outrage of TIF-as-shopping-mall enabler but, locally, to a kind of economic capture-the-flag between the city of Bloomington and the county of Monroe, particularly the more urban parts of the former and the more rural parts of the latter.

The county established its own Economic Redevelopment Commission, with the oxymoronic charge of "rural development," meaning the conversion of countryside greenfields into tract housing, strip malls and highway-side fast-food joints.

Pretty much par for the course, here in Indiana. Which is to say, utterly backwards.

And through the county's economic redevelopment commission came first something called the "Richland TIF," which enabled a community college to be located far away from the community it served and on land belonging to one of the college's benefactors.

And later to the creation of something called "North Park," an arterial scar of land some 400-plus acres, owned by the developer that the state paid to build the arterial highway in the first place. An open greenspace, peppered with abandoned limestone quarries and decreed by the redevelopment commission as organically blighted, incapable of normal economic development -- that is, development without an influx of massive amounts of public subsidy.

From bad, to worse

TIFs should never have been used as a way to turbocharge suburban greenfield sprawl. But let's now fast-forward to the current situation in which "Bloomington" Hospital is planning on moving out of its low-energy downtown location and out to the high-energy, high-cost area of North Park -- all enabled on the backs of the taxpayers, by decree from the county redevelopment commission.

From bad, to worse. But it gets nastier still. As the hospital moves, so will all of the ancillary economic activities surrounding the current site. The doctor's offices. The medical suppliers. Everything.

And when it does move, it will create an enormous economic dead zone -- an urban brownfield, smack in the middle of the city of Bloomington. Why? Because Hoosiers have manages to pervert the intention of TIF financing so much, so far beyond merely using it to build suburban shopping malls, that they are now actually, and with an apparent straight face, about to embark on a final frontier of hard-core economic pornography: the use of Tax Increment Financing not to mitigate and repair an urban brownfield.

But to create one.

Moonwalking

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of appearing on WFIU's Noon Edition. The topic? Peak Oil. We had an entirely pleasant hour-long conversation where the biggest surprise was the lack of surprise. It seems $140-on-its-way-to-$650-a-barrel oil has finally punched through the collective reality distortion field. Noon Edition's's hosts didn't fight the very concept of peak oil, as I had expected.

No, they wanted to know what could be done to lessen the pain.

In the end, I talked (less than I would have liked) about the first step to lessening the pain being the cessation of walking backwards -- using North Park and the hospital as an example. An example of planners, while headlines scream of oil shortages and transportation crises, nevertheless planning, here in Indiana, to move a major institution from a low-energy, high-accessibility location to a high-energy, low-accessibility location.

My hosts gave me a kind of wan look that says, "Yes, we know. But we don't know any better."

And I walked, backwards, out of the studio.

Gregory Travis can be reached at greg@littlebear.com.