At first glance, the town of Edwardsville, Ala., with a population of 194 people, might raise a few eyebrows with its bid to receive $375 million from the economic stimulus package being assembled by Barack Obama and lawmakers in Congress.
The tiny town, located near the Georgia border and 26 miles from the nearest "big city" of Anniston (population: 24,276), added 33 proposals—about two thirds of them related to "green" energy—to the list of "ready-to-go-projects" assembled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Total sum: $375,076,200.
There's certainly no denying that Edwardsville has big ambitions. Through the various proposals, which include a renewable energy museum, scenic railroad, and vineyards, these small Alabama communities envision themselves becoming a cutting-edge demonstration project for energy sustainability and a hub for tourism.
"Do you know how hard it is to fund some of these projects when your tax base is so low?" Phillips says. "So we just breathed this sigh of relief when we found out about the stimulus package . . . especially when it had a focus on renewable energy."
"This really exemplifies the problem. Why are we buying light bulbs for a local community?" asks Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. "If a municipality wants to save money, [it can] go out and buy the light bulbs. There is no reason the federal government should buy them."
Aw c'mon Tom, check this out:
One of Edwardsville's biggest proposed expenditures is for a "renewable energy museum and information dissemination center." Phillips envisions exhibits, audio tours, seminars, a research center, and a satellite lab run by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
To fund the museum, Edwardsville is requesting $32.1 million. That makes the facility the fourth most expensive museum proposed on the U.S. Conference of Mayors list—following facilities planned by Miami, Las Vegas, and Scottsdale, Ariz. (Some of those facilities have drawn their own controversy: Las Vegas's proposal for a $55 million "mob museum," for example, was used by Sen. Mitch McConnell this week as a prime example of pork spending.)
Mob museum in Las Vegas? How cool is that? Maybe they'll have a section devoted to the infamous Reid Crime Family!
But I digress. You have to admire the chutzpah of the Edwardsville folks - why shouldn't they belly up to the bar for the free lunch just like the city slickers?
Some might wonder how many people a renewable energy museum in rural Alabama could attract. And there are other routes for museum funding, like the Institute of Museum and Library Services. If a project can't get funding through competitive grants, Schatz says, perhaps it shouldn't get funding at all.
"Clearly, no one else has been interested in funding this, so why should we be doing it now?" he asks, referring to all the projects on the U.S. Conference of Mayors list that are using the stimulus as a last-ditch funding effort. "Why should the federal government be doing something now that you couldn't do yourself?"
Tom, Tom, Tom! You just don't have the Obama spirit!
The energy museum speaks to Edwardsville's larger hope: becoming a tourist destination. The town has requested $37 million for a solar energy-enhanced "scenic railroad line." It's also asking for $9 million to go toward establishing an eventual 640 acres of vineyards, 160 acres of which would be launched first. Each of the four vineyards would be designed around the theme of a different European country and, in a bid for weddings, dotted with gazebos and chapels.
To some, the vineyards, in particular, seem dubious. The Southeast is subject to a disease that puts traditional European grape varieties out of reach, usually limiting vineyards to the muscadine grape. Partly as a result, vineyards haven't exactly been the region's strong suit. Georgia has just 1,100 acres of vineyards, while Mississippi has 400. (Compare that with California's 800,000 or even Pennsylvania's 12,000.) The 640 acres for vineyards that Edwardsville ultimately wants to establish would nearly double the vineyard acreage of the entire state of Alabama, which is currently at 650.
Ya gotta have high hopes if you want Obama and Congrees to grease your palm.
It's not yet known whether Edwardsville will get any money from the stimulus package at all. There's no guarantee as to how many projects, if any, on the mayors list will get federal funding. And although $375 million may seem like a lot of money, it's also a fraction of the $96,638,419,313 requested by all the towns on the list.
Is that good news or bad news?
I really have to get in on this stimulus scam. Hmm, I guess first I need to incorporate myself as a town and elect myself mayor. Maybe I could even get Mrs. Philosopher to vote for me if I promised her a government grant.