Twenty years ago the atmosphere of Monroe County and Bloomington gained a backbeat right out of a Buffalo Springfield Lyric: "There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear." And, yes, there were battle lines being drawn. Maybe nobody's right, if everybody's wrong.

Bloomington had survived the iconic 1970s, with a character and ethos frozen in time by movies like Breaking Away. But by 1990 some of us started to worry that instead of a happy time capsule, Breaking Away had become an ominous, if still nostalgic, totem to a past now gone replaced by a future not as good.

For while most of us knew what "Bloomington" meant, reality was far more harsh. During the 1980s, IU's financial minister John Hackett had dictated that every university unit become a cost center, had to earn its own way and, with that dictate, were swept away anything not amortizable no matter what the sentimental, institutional or historic value.

I remember going to the Union every day for lunch with my father, ordering a "Health Nut" sandwich and paying for it to a university employee. And I remember lunches in the Tudor Room, Sunday dinners in the commons (all you can eat spaghetti) and a sense of shared mission, shared purpose, shared community washed away in a great tsunami of privatization-for-privatization's sake.

Soon, long gone were the Health Nuts and the Sunday spaghetti dinners. In their place came the corporate frypits. The Burger Kings, the Coke franchises -- everything that made a great institution marginally less so and a people who worked, shopped and schooled there marginally less human.

Now IU's Memorial Union is but a burlesque of what it once was. A miasmic haze of anomie, an identity-free place that no one could possibly, a year or 10 from now, care about; or much less contribute to. Such are the wages of sin.

The price of everything and the value of nothing

IU wasn't an outlier in its practice, just an example and a rather latecomer to the game. While the 1980s were the decade of value engineering, of wringing every last extraneous cent out of everything, the process on the national scale had actually begun much earlier. Quality, it was determined, was just too damned expensive.

"Something else also happened in the 1980s. ... Specifically, the federal government told the states: no more sugar daddy, you're on your own."

Cheap was no longer a pejorative.

The attitude wrecked havoc on our built environment. Flight from our cities to cheap suburban land bedecked with cheap suburban houses came at a cost: the urban brownfield. A factory site, a neighborhood, a department store emptied and decaying. A mosaic of such sites necrotizing the city's core, accelerating the process.

Luckily, I think, people recognized this. They recognized that a system of incentives, largely in the form of tax regulations, could perhaps entice developers, and development, back to the city. These enticements took many forms, such as tax abatements. But the big daddy, invented in California in the 1950s, was the Tax Increment District, or TID.

A TID was simply a line drawn around a blighted neighborhood. It was the geographic expression of something else, called Tax Increment Financing, or TIF. If TID was a line, TIF was a promise. A promise to developers: "If you invest in this blighted area, if you build new where now is only rot, you will keep the proceeds of your investment."

Meaning that, if a developer redeveloped a blighted area and that caused property values and property taxes in the area to rise, the developer could (effectively) keep the additional taxes for himself, to continue to invest in his development.

Indiana, always a bit behind, didn't get TIF/TID until the 1980s where TIF/TID was used to revitalize, for example, Indianapolis' once-decrepit and abandoned downtown.

When it works, it works great.

But something else also happened in the 1980s, and that something was Reagan-era devolution. Specifically, the federal government told the states: no more sugar daddy, you're on your own. And the states then told their local governments: no more sugar daddy, you're on your own.

The blighted cornfield

Local governments, like Monroe County government and the government of Bloomington, realized they had to get creative if they were going to fill the fiscal hole opened by Washington. TIF/TID offered one of those ways due to different, and less restrictive, rules regarding how property taxes can be raised within a TID. Due to the fact that local governments are allowed to borrow money in anticipation of increased tax revenues within a TID. And due to the fact that the administration of taxes, and how they are spent, is far less bureaucratic, far more flexible and quite a bit less accountable and transparent inside a TID than outside it.

"Flight from our cities to cheap suburban land bedecked with cheap suburban houses came at a cost: the urban brownfield."

Of course cities had already been using TIF/TID for a while to redevelop urban brownfields (as Indianapolis had done). But what if the awesome power and opportunities that TIF/TID promised could be used not to redevelop a dilapidated factory site, not to tear down project housing and erect new traditional neighborhoods, not to revitalize dying city cores but what if it could be used for something else?

What if it could be used to pour concrete over a cornfield? What if it could be used to lay sewer where once before had only been soybeans? To lay down a cul-de-sac where carrots had once grown? To put a strip mall over the sassafras? A factory where before had been forest?

Pregnant with possibilities, a pyramid of profit potential. The spirit, law, and purpose of TIF/TID turned on its head. Instead of resources and investment flowing back to the city, now a shockwave of turbocharged sprawl racing back outward from it.

Yes, redevelopment could go both ways. It could make a city livable again. But it could just as easily be used to not only continue those processes that had made them unlivable in the first place, but to actually accelerate them. And the great thing was that, while the profits from urban brownfield redevelopment were pretty good, the profits from suburban greenfield development were even better.

It could go both ways. And in Monroe County it did. And it does -- with one particularly shocking instance just this week.

I'll continue this discussion, and talk about the real examples, next week.

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