Pittsburgh Fifth & Forbes Condemnation - OpEd: Kumer
Condemning Eminent Domain
By Roy and Jeff Kumer
After three generations at the Pittsburgh Wool Company, we are surprised to find ourselves tangled in a growing controversy over the future of not only our business, but the future of Heinz Corporation and the City of Pittsburgh. The center of this fight, however, is not located at our river-front property that we've developed for the better part of this century, employing literally thousands of men and women. The real conflict here can be found at City County Building and will decide whether our government can run roughshod over the rights of private business.
For generations, the Kumers and the Heinzs have been amicable neighbors. It wasn't uncommon for us to look out for the security of their facility and for them to return the favor. Forty years ago, when the Pittsburgh Wool Company was located down the street from where it is today, a Heinz representative walked over and explained that they needed our building and offered to buy it. Working together, we secured our current site and within three days a deal was struck. Heinz even leased us our old property until we could move into the new building. The Heinz family made sure there would be no disruption in the Kumer family's business.
Based on that history, we were shocked to discover that more than a year ago, the Heinz Corporation went to the city-not to us-when it wanted our property. Misusing the government's power of eminent domain (and using it as a first option), they sought not to build a public road or a school, but a private warehouse where our business and four others now operate. Every citizen of Pittsburgh should understand this: If Heinz can direct the City to take our property and hand it over for private development, then there is nothing to stop your politically connected next-door neighbor from directing the City to take your home or your business so he can put up a structure more to his liking. The government's power to take is the power to destroy.
Up until August 2 of this year, when the City Council authorized the condemnation of our property, we tried to negotiate with the City. Even though we felt that what was happening was wrong and that we should be negotiating with Heinz directly, we still cooperated. We suggested possible relocation sites. We spent hours with City representatives.
But we will not negotiate with a gun pointed out our heads.
The City has said that if we don't agree to sell our property, it will force us out, even if we have nowhere else to go. There is a right way and a wrong way of doing business. The Kumers and the Heinzs used to conduct business with a handshake. Now the Heinz Corporation called in the government to conduct its business with a fist. This is the wrong way and it sends the message that the city can create jobs by destroying small local businesses in favor of larger ones. Having paid our taxes over the years, the fact that taxpayer money is being used against us only makes the City's actions hurt all the more.
It is rumored that if Heinz doesn't get its way on this matter they may well leave Pittsburgh. Nobody, least of all us, wants to see that happen. But make no mistake about it, if Heinz leaves Pittsburgh, it will be City, not Pittsburgh Wool Company, that will have forced the issue. If an authorized representative of Heinz came to us tomorrow, we would sit down with them to try to save the jobs both the Kumers and the Heinzs have created. We know the value of employment and want to work with Heinz, privately, to preserve those jobs.
If the City begins condemnation proceedings, it will force our family into time-consuming legal work to defend our constitutionally protected property rights in court. And thanks to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has recently won a similar fight, we stand ready to do just that.
The ultimate fight here is not about money, as some have accused. We are not asking for more than we have been offered. This is a fight about restraining government's power to take property from one private party and give it to another not for some public purpose, but for that party's private benefit. The government's role is to protect our rights, not to act as a super real estate agent that can use its power to force small businesses like ours to get out.
This is a pivotal moment for my family, for Heinz, and for Pittsburgh. This conflict will decide whether our city encourages the values of hard work, honesty and entrepreneurship our family has lived, or whether the City is ready to sacrifice those values on the altar of political pragmatism.