City's 'Free Land' Offer Not Quite a Modern 'Homestead Act'

The Muskegon Chronicle is reporting a new twist on Michigan's growing corporate welfare empire: The coastal city is offering to give free land to job providers who occupy space in a pair of government-owned industrial parks.

What's interesting is that — at least theoretically — handing out "free land" in moribund cities like Muskegon or Detroit doesn't necessarily constitute any kind of unfair business subsidy or "picking winners and losers." Rather, it could just be a local government seeking a "market-clearing price" for commercial/industrial property, the value of which may be essentially zero anyway.

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Theoretically is the key word there: In this instance the offer also includes a smorgasbord of the unfair subsidies and tax breaks that have become this state's alternative to enacting genuine tax, regulatory and labor law reform. These include a "renaissance zone" exemption from almost all site-specific state and local taxes (potentially an outright cash subsidy if a firm is also granted a "refundable" state business tax break), infrastructure improvements and water/sewer discounts.

In addition, the value of parcels in the two "shovel ready" county and city industrial parks (prepared with federal money handouts) may not really be zero. The Chronicle reports that their asking prices are from $17,500 to $30,000; it doesn't say how much they're actually getting, however.

So this isn't really a modern version of the Homestead Act land rushes of the 19th century — yet. Rather, it's just another tawdry episode in this state's political establishment's futile embrace of mercantilist corporate welfare policies over free enterprise. But the prospect hinted at by the headline is intriguing nevertheless.