By John C. Mozena

Santa Claus looked up from his desk as his elven assistant led his next appointment into his office. The planning process to expand his workshop had been a massive distraction from Santa’s normal work, so much so that he’d taken a rare meeting with an outsider who had claimed expertise in making projects like this “work for everyone involved.”

“Mr. Claus, Santa, it’s an honor to meet you. I’m Ed Bigly, the economic development consultant.”

Jiggling like a bowl full of jelly, Santa stood to shake his visitor’s hand. “Mr. Bigly, thank you for coming. I’ll admit that I’m starting off a bit confused, though. Is an economic development consultant some sort of project manager? My big challenge right now is planning and managing this confounded workshop expansion. It’s wonderful that there’s so many more children in the world than there used to be, but we need more room to make all the toys for them and I’m stretched thin dealing with everything.”

“Oh, no, no, no,” laughed Bigly. “What I can do for you, Santa, is far more important than project management. Any drone with Excel can do that. What I do is make sure that you’re taking advantage of all of the opportunities to bring together a public-private economic development partnership that ensures the viability of your project and creates or retains the maximum number of jobs and associated economic impact.”

Santa, who’d spent centuries dealing primarily with plain-spoken elves, children and flying livestock, was taken aback. “Excuse me, young man? What does this have to do with expanding my workshop so that I can keep pace with the growing population of children around the world?”

“In short, Santa, I’m making sure you’re not leaving any government funding for your project on the table.”

“Government funding? You mean tax credits?” Santa wasn’t completely out of touch with the realities of modern life, even as an immortal mythological figure. He might not need to worry about death, but he still had to pay taxes.

“Oh, Santa.” Bigly grew animated, reminding Santa of an elf rhapsodizing about its favorite woodworking tools. “Tax credits are just the beginning. There’s a whole ecosystem of credits, subsidies, incentives, programs, loan guarantees, grants, funding mechanisms and other tools that someone in your position should be using and can’t afford not to take advantage of. That’s what I can do for you. You’re the best there is at delivering free toys, but I’m the best there is at delivering free money.”

“There’s people who do that? Just…get free money for companies? From whom, governments? I thought governments took tax money from companies, not the other way around.”

“Are you kidding? Santa, you probably don’t realize this, but American cities and states hand out as much money to companies every year in these kinds of deals as Americans spend on things like golf, or their pets, or trying to lose weight.” Bigly started pacing back and forth on the deep red rug in front of Santa’s ancient wooden desk, rubbing his hands together. “Heck, it’s one of the fastest-growing industries in the country, we’ve tripled in size since just 1990 and there’s no sign of it slowing down soon. I’m glad I’ve gotten in when I did. Don’t get me wrong, I had to sacrifice and put in my time making a civil servant salary in the Economic Development Authority, but now I use my relationships there to help business owners like yourself take advantage of everything governments are willing to do for you.”

Santa ran his fingers through his beard, which Mrs. Claus often told him was a transparently unsuccessful method of making himself look thoughtful instead of confused.

Bigly appeared to recognize this tell as well. “Let me explain how this could work for you, Santa.”

“Please, do. I’m not sure about this tax credit thing, but I need this new workshop. It must be operational within six months and add 30 percent to our production capacity, or we’re going to be short on gifts for next Christmas. It’s not optional.”

“First off, let’s keep that kind of messaging to ourselves. From here on out, you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing, or what your timeframe is. You don’t know where this workshop is going, or how big it’s going to be.”

Santa stared at Bigly, then blinked once behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “What? No. It’s going to be here, at the North Pole. That’s how this works. Where else would it be?”

“Texas is good, very favorable tax structure that plays municipalities against each other and then lets you leverage those municipal credits for more at the state level. Oklahoma and Nebraska are also aggressive players for their size. Don’t count out Missouri or Kentucky, and Louisiana is always willing to play ball, especially if you’re willing to lose the Naughty List for a few politicians, if you know what I mean. If you’d like to keep it colder, then Michigan is big with manufacturing tax incentives and I really can’t tell the difference between its Upper Peninsula and the North Pole anyway. But frankly, that’s not the point.”

“Not the point? I can’t move to Texas. I have reindeer to think of! They’d faint dead away in Houston in July or Amarillo in August!”

Bigly held his arms out wide, as if embracing an entire country of possibilities. “Santa, that’s the beauty of this. You don’t need to move anywhere! You’re a global brand, any city or state would kill to have you and no politician would dare to suggest that their city or state doesn’t deserve you. You can go Full Bezos!”

“I hesitate to ask what that means, Mr. Bigly.”

“You’ve heard of Jeff Bezos?”

“Heard of him? He tried to buy me out, said he could replace my elves with outsourced drop-shippers. He’s now on the Really Naughty List, as much as Mrs. Claus loves Prime Video and that show about the young woman doing standup comedy in New York.”

Bigly blinked. “That’s…something. OK, well, what I mean is that we simply need to release a Request for Proposals to locate Santa’s Workshop 2 – we’ll hashtag it #SW2 – somewhere and ask for cities and states to make you offers. Amazon got more than 230 responses. I’d be surprised if you didn’t break 500. What mayor wants to say their city doesn’t deserve Christmas? Narrow it down to a list of twenty-something finalists, pump up the interest, do some media to leverage your brand awareness, get a whole bunch of free data and information about every place of value in the nation that you can use for yourself or sell to brokers, and then boom, you take the biggest and best proposals and use them as the starting point for your negotiations here with North Pole City.”

Santa had started shaking his head halfway through. “Mr. Bigly, I’m not going to lie to hundreds of cities and tell them that I’m honestly considering moving there when I’m simply not. I have the responsibility to set an example to the good little boys and girls of the world.”

“Look, Santa, kids send you their Christmas list every year and you promise to consider it, but we all know that more often than not it’s socks and underwear under the tree, not ponies. Think of it like 500 municipal Christmas gift lists that you’re getting billions of dollars to consider, but you have just one pony and everyone else gets socks and underwear.”

“Certainly not billions of dollars. Not for one workshop. That’s ridiculous.”

“Santa, remember you said you couldn’t move to Texas? Well, one formal response to Amazon’s RFP offered Jeff Bezos a 99-year lease near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport with a total value of more than $22 billion. It didn’t even have a mechanism to get the land or money back if he didn’t fulfill his end of the bargain. Bezos didn’t take it, the stud that he is, but you better believe that when he was negotiating with New York and Virginia that little dollar amount got dropped into the conversation. You don’t just get offered as one-sided a deal as Queen Victoria got for Hong Kong and not take advantage of it somehow. Every serious offer to Amazon was in the billions, that’s what they’re getting out of New York and Virginia and that’s what you can get out of North Pole City. Plus, the money up front is only part of what we can get you.”

Santa put his head in his hands. “I hesitate to ask you what else you can ‘get me,’ Mr. Bigly. Isn’t billions of dollars for doing what I was going to do anyway enough for anyone?”

Bigly actually cackled, a sound that hadn’t been heard in Santa’s office since the Broadway cast soundtrack of “Wicked” had been a hot gift of the season. “Well, let’s start with the land. You want to build next to your existing workshop, right? Someone else owns that land now, am I correct?”

“Yes, the Olerud family owns it, they’ve had a tree farm there for generations,” Santa said. “I’ve been talking to Young Hans for a few months about a price to buy it from him. He’s happy with the idea of no longer being a tree farmer, but still wants to get the best price for his family.”

“Well, stop that. What we do is go to the city and get them to declare the property blighted. That means they can condemn it, seize it under eminent domain, write the Oleruds a nice but not ridiculous ‘fair market value’ check and then either give it to you or sell it to you on the cheap. Heck, they’ll probably flip it to you for less than they pay the Oleruds.”

“It’s not blighted. It’s a tree farm! It’s beautiful! I get my own Christmas tree there! We can’t simply take the Oleruds’ land from them and pay them less than they want for it, that’s stealing!”

“Santa, the government says it’s not stealing when the government does it and it’s blighted if the city says it’s blighted. Hey, that also means it’ll trigger a brownfield designation, because any government-owned blighted land is automatically considered to be a brownfield under state law, which means you’ll be eligible for big brownfield remediation tax credits.”

Bigly continued, “Here’s where it gets even better. Assume you’re going to have to buy the land from the city, even at a reduced cost. Then, you’re going to have construction costs. What you do is you start a bank.”

“A bank? Like a piggy bank?” Santa perked up, briefly on solid ground for the first time in the discussion. “OK, we have lots of those. We also do some beautiful mechanical banks where the arm comes up and grabs the penny, sometimes they have a music box or humorous saying…”

“No, an actual bank. Probably in Utah, where we can do it as an industrial loan corporation. You start a bank, you loan yourself the money to buy the land from the city against your taxes through state programs to encourage economic development lending. I love that one. Walmart tried to do it and failed, but people like Christmas better than they like Walmart so you could probably get away with it.”

Santa, who felt the briefly solid conversational ground slipping away and whose expertise with banking was only as deep as annual viewings of “It’s a Wonderful Life” could provide, dug his fingers more deeply into his beard. Bigly noticed and hurried on.

“Next, we get the county to create a TIF district.”

“Tiff district? Is this where people who are mildly unhappy with me would come and argue? Or where young ladies named Tiffany live? Maybe they each have billions of dollars, too?” (Santa might best be known for “jolly,” but he could reach “sarcastic” with a little effort.)

“Ha, good one. Who knows? Anything’s possible! But no, that’s a Tax Increment Finance district. What happens is they lock in the tax money that goes to the city, county, school district and state from the land for your workshop at whatever low rate the Oleruds are paying right now. And once we get through all of the credits and subsidies and exemptions we’re going to get and you actually have to write a property tax check, anything more than what they’re paying now for a tree farm – that’s great, by the way, taxes are nothing on agricultural land – gets captured and goes right into the TIF district where people who work for you get to decide how it’s spent, not the local mayor and city council. Some of it will go right back to you to fund subsidies, some of it can be used for fancy crap like streetscaping or holiday decorations or whatever, but it all has to benefit the district, which means benefiting you. Next…”

“Wait, you said ‘school district,’” Santa rumbled, his glare making Bigly feel like a stocking being measured for coal capacity. “I’m SANTA CLAUS, man. Are you truly saying I should not contribute to the education of our local children?”

“Oh, no. No, no, no. Don’t think of it like that,” Bigly hastily responded. “Remember, one key message for us is that by creating economic activity through ‘Hashtag-S-W-Two,’ you’re growing the local economy to the point where the district will end up bringing in more revenues than before thanks to rising property values and all that stuff in the press releases.”

As a magical being himself, Santa knew magic thinking when he saw it. “Does that happen? It seems unlikely that me expanding my workshop is going to make all the land in North Pole City that much more valuable. I’ve been here for centuries, through good times and bad. This city is what it is, and the people here like it that way.”

Bigly shrugged. “Who knows? The important thing is that we’ll have the right economic impact predictions in hand saying that everything will work out to justify the numbers. Kids in schools might take a hit now, but we’ll have numbers saying everything will be great for their kids in 20 years. You know the saying, ‘There’s lies, damn lies and statistics?’ Well, some of the economic impact predictions I’ve seen are all three. The analysts who do these things will say what we want them to say, they’re the Teddy Ruxpin dolls of economic development.”

Santa’s eyes had narrowed again behind his glasses at the word “lies.” Bigly, seeing this from the curator of the Naughty List and flashing back to childhood memories of songs enumerating all the things he better not do, hurried ahead. “Anyways, what matters most to the average person is the jobs you’re saving or retaining. We can get you a credit for workforce development training, hiring displaced workers, get subsidized education programs from the state…”

“Elves, Mr. Bigly. My workers are elves. They are magical creatures, they do not need training in any sense you’d recognize, and I don’t ‘create or retain’ their jobs. When there’s a job to do in my workshops, an elf shows up to do it, then disappears to their magical land when it’s done.”

“Migrant labor, hmm. That’s tougher, with the changes to H2-B visa programs, but we can still make it work. How about the reindeer?”

“They’re unionized. Teamsters.”

Bigly started to ask a question three or four times, without any actual words coming out of his mouth, then visibly decided to move on.

“All right… Well, how about those reindeer games we’ve heard of? There are credits for creating community recreation facilities, do these reindeer games use special fields?” Santa started to respond, but Bigly waved him off. “Doesn’t really matter to be honest, you can just put up a sign saying ‘Something-or-Other Field, brought to you by these agencies and those elected officials,’ but the photos with the politicians at the ceremony look better if there’s swingsets or lines on the field or something. You can take them off later.”

Santa slumped back in his black leather chair, glaring at Bigly. “Mr. Bigly, you keep saying that the city will do this and the state will do that and they’re going to give me billions of dollars and free land and shortchange the schools and play along with blatant…lies about moving to Texas and being a banker in Utah. Look here, man. I keep the Nice List and the Naughty List and I’ve been around for centuries. I’m not naïve enough to assume that all elected officials are saints, but I simply can’t imagine that every single one of them is so corrupt as to do all this no matter how much you’re going to suggest I bribe them.”

Bigly blanched. “Mr. Claus, Santa, please! I categorically deny any and all allegations that I’d be involved in bribery!” His voice rose, as if he were ensuring any hidden microphones got a clear recording. “I have never and would never, ever bribe a public official. That would be illegal and immoral!”

Santa relaxed. “Well, I apologize. I must have misunderstood you.”

Bigly brought his voice back down to a non-evidentiary level. “Also, we don’t need to bribe them. It’s fine, they’ll do it for free!”

“Excuse me?”

“With respect, Santa, you’re missing the point. You’re in the business of knowing what people want more than anything else. What does every politician want more than anything else?”

“Why, re-election, of course. Followed closely by election to a higher office. Third place is traditionally Scotch whiskey.”

“Bingo,” exclaimed Bigly, miming hitting a game-show buzzer. “They want to be re-elected. You wonder why they’d give you free money for doing what you’re going to do anyway? Well, because one of the best ways for politicians – especially mayors and governors – to get re-elected is to take credit for what was going to happen anyway. If they can stand up at the ceremony where you cut the ribbon with giant scissors on Santa’s Workshop Two and take credit for having ‘fought for and won’ this wonderful facility for the local community, then they’re going to do it.”

“But the cost,” said Santa, getting visibly frustrated. “You’re talking about massive amounts of money. That’s money that they’re not going to have to spend on, I don’t know, police officers. Or fire fighters, or roads, or ambulances, or schools, like we talked about. This isn’t magical money, it’s coming from everyone who pays taxes in North Pole City and in the county and state. Don’t mayors and governors know this? Don’t they care?”

“What the governor cares about is that she’s facing a legitimate opponent in the upcoming election, and she knows that voters support politicians who ‘fight for jobs’ by offering big subsidies to attract corporations,” Bigly explained. “The best research out there shows that an incumbent governor can get as much as a nine-point increase in voter intent among independent voters by taking credit for attracting a thousand new manufacturing jobs to the state. She gets a nine-point bump with independents, she’s back in the Governor’s Mansion for the next four years with room to breathe. If all it takes is promising you money that won’t come due for decades after she’s gone…Santa, you’d need to let her signing pen cool down before using it she’d move so fast.”

“All right, just for the sake of argument let’s say you’re right about the governor and the mayor,” sighed Santa. “I cannot imagine that the people would be OK with this. I know all too well what people get like when they think someone else has gotten a much nicer gift than they deserve, especially if, you know, they’d themselves gotten socks and underwear. Aren’t the people of North Pole City going to be mad at me for taking all this money out of things the community needs?”

“What they don’t know…well, I wouldn’t say it won’t hurt them, but at least they won’t know that it’s hurting them,” said Bigly, making Santa slump deeper into his chair. “First off, don’t forget that we’re going to have the support of the North Pole Chamber of Commerce since their members love getting free money and the more you get, the more they can ask for the next time around. As for the average nosy civilian or reporter, the law lets you keep most of the details of all of these deals secret as ‘confidential taxpayer information,’ which is best for everyone involved – except for the other taxpayers, which is their problem and not ours – and you can even get it written into your deal paperwork that if some busybody files a Freedom of Information Act request involving your information that you’ll get notified and have the chance to object and fight it. And hey, the bureaucrats who make that decision are all friends and former coworkers of mine. Trust me, there’s no incentive for anyone involved in this industry to share the details on how the sausage gets made.”

Bigly took a breath and looked ready to continue, but Santa motioned him to stop. The office was silent but for the quiet crackle of the fireplace and a slow, dignified ticking from an ornate grandfather clock with a face divided into 12 months instead of 12 hours (with December 25th at the noon position.)

“Edward D. Bigly,” Santa said, with a new tone to his voice that made Bigly feel as if his name had been written down somewhere…important.

“Um, yes? Santa? Sir?” Bigly no longer felt like he was meeting with a potential client. The atmosphere in the room had gone from “new business meeting” to “arraignment” without warning.

Santa rose from his chair, no longer looking especially like a focus-grouped jolly old man on a soda can. He came across, rather, like someone who remembered what it was like to have trudged through snowy primeval forests with a sack of simple gifts for children on his back more than a century before the Dark Ages had even gotten underway.

“Edward, we talk these days about naughty lists and nice lists. We talk about good boys and girls and bad boys and girls. Times evolve, and so must I. But Edward, what it has always been about – what this entire thing I do has always been about – is Right and Wrong. It is about men, women and children being good to each other, and doing the right thing. It is about rewarding good boys and girls. And while I don’t punish the bad boys and girls in any meaningful way, I certainly don’t reward them. That’s often enough of a punishment in and of itself to teach a child a lesson and change their behavior.

“And as an expert – some might say the expert – in Right and Wrong, I say to you, Mister Economic Development, that what you are doing is wrong. What you are suggesting I do is wrong. You should know this. I remember you as a child – oh yes, I remember every child, Edward – and I wonder how that little boy would feel to know he’d grown up into the kind of man who suggests that SANTA CLAUS HIMSELF STEAL FROM THE PEOPLE OF HIS COMMUNITY!” Santa’s angry roar vibrated the office walls, shaking loose icicles from the eaves outside. “Is that the right thing to do, Edward? Is that what your mother and father taught you, that you should take things that belong to other people, just because you can? That it’s OK to take more than your fair share so long as you’re clever enough not to get in trouble, or that you’ve convinced everybody else that it’s for their own good? That it’s not wrong, because a lot of other people are doing it?”

Bigly stood stunned and motionless, hot tears beginning to well up in his eyes. He felt, unsurprisingly, like a child who’d just been told he’d been such a Bad Boy that there would be no Christmas that year.

“Get out of my office, Mister Economic Development. Go back to your subsidies, your incentives, your tax credits, your TIF districts, your banks, your colleagues, your politicians, your consultants, your analysts, your industry that you’re so proud of. Tell them what happened here this evening. Tell them what I told you: In the words of this modern era, they are being Naughty, not Nice.

“Maybe they’ll listen to you, if you tell them what they’re doing is wrong. They probably won’t. Most of those who listen probably won’t care. Many of those who care still won’t change their behavior, because there’s money to be made and who has time for such luxuries as right and wrong when there’s money to be made.

“But deep inside, the children who were raised to know right from wrong are still there. They know they’re taking what isn’t theirs. They know they’re not telling the truth. They know they’re making things worse for everyone instead of better because they’re greedy and taking more than their fair share.

“And maybe, just maybe, the grownups they’ve become will listen to the children they used to be this Christmas, and start being concerned with doing the right thing.

“Now get out. I’ve got a workshop to build, and you’re not helping.”

# # #

(Photo by Srikanta H. U on Unsplash)

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