There's always a fair amount of grousing — some of it justified, some of it not — when a New Jersey business receives incentive money to keep it from leaving the state. And there have been hundreds of millions offered in such a way over the past few years, on companies such as Honeywell, Panasonic and Roche.
Generally, we believe such incentives are critical in a game where states compete against one another to land the biggest companies, recognizing the value a major corporation adds to the local economy.
But a recent case — not involving a for-profit company — illustrates the need to think clearly about such programs before awarding them. We're talking about the Garden State Film Festival, which last month announced it would relocate from Asbury Park to Atlantic City.
Unlike, say, Panasonic, the film festival is distinctly New Jersey in nature. It's right there in the name, after all. This was not an event likely to pick up and move to lower-tax Pennsylvania. But when the film festival announced it needed to find a new location — the Paramount Theater it has called home is to be decommissioned — there was the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, subsidizing its move from one part of the Shore to another to the tune of $300,000.
It's not a huge amount of money, to be sure, but the message — that it's OK to use subsidy dollars to poach from other cities in the state — is extremely troublesome. This was the sort of thing that concerned us in 2011, when the Urban Transit Hub subsidy was used to move Panasonic from its Meadowlands base into Newark, because otherwise, it might go out of state.
There's more than enough for CRDA to do with the money it generates from the casinos to clean up woebegone Atlantic City. New Jersey, with all its wealth and diversity, probably could have supported a second film festival, had it come to that, or even just invited Garden State to explore the cultural hub of Atlantic City without the perception of buying it away from another city that's also looking to turn the corner.
We hope this is just a one-time thing. It's bad enough that states trade blows with one another in order to poach companies to supposedly greener pastures. If cities look at what happened here and decide it's worth escalating, we'll be making a zero-sum game that much worse.