Film Documents Impact of Eminent Domain Abuse

Published January 1, 2008

Phil Klein has been arrested at a public meeting, and his assistant’s car has been vandalized, but the incidents have done nothing to cool his zeal for exposing what he says are attacks on property rights by states and local governments.

He’s doing it in Begging for Billionaires, a documentary film Klein has spent eight years putting together. He expects to release the film in 2008.

The 47-year-old lifelong Missouri resident and documentary filmmaker says he decided to make the film after watching Kansas City, Missouri start the process of seizing private businesses for an economic development project. The nearly 90-minute film also documents similar moves in other communities.

Taken for Empty Arena

Much of the focus is on two small businesses in Kansas City that local officials forced out for a redevelopment project for Sprint Arena, a professional sports facility that still has no tenants. The area includes the corporate headquarters of H&R Block, a multibillion-dollar Fortune 500 company.

“Things have gotten worse, more aggressive,” Klein said of the tactics local governments are using against property owners since he started his project. “I followed two families who were trying to survive eminent domain. Both of them lost.

“The city used Nazi-like tactics,” Klein continued. “They put a fence around their property, turned off the electricity, blocked off the street, went onto property with police officers. Pure intimidation.”

Klein notes both families eventually had to relocate their businesses–American Formalwear and Just Right Printing and Stamp Company–to less-desirable locations and have been struggling as a result. Many customers assumed the companies had gone out of business.

Launched Before Kelo

The film project was underway before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in the Kelo case. The court ruled in favor of New London, Connecticut’s decision to use eminent domain to destroy a residential neighborhood for “economic development.” The court ruled cities may use eminent domain to take private property and turn it over to other private parties who promise to use the land in ways that boost tax revenues.

“Cities would rather have big car dealers and big-box stores than little mom and pop stores,” Klein said. “They’re bringing back land baronism. When I started doing this, I was shocked, going to these hearings and seeing how people were treated. A TIF [tax increment finance] commission was terrible. People were told to sit down and shut up.

“The news media have articles on this stuff here and there, but they don’t really show the effects. If you don’t see the emotional and psychological impact on these people, you can’t really understand what’s happening,” Klein said. “That’s what I try to do; show the impact. Maybe if enough people get mad, we’ll make some changes. If we don’t have property rights, what good are other rights?”

Arrested During Filming

While filming public meetings where eminent domain was under discussion, Klein was once placed under arrest. After leaving another meeting, he and an assistant discovered the assistant’s car, which they had used to get to the meeting, had been damaged by vandals.

Begging for Billionaires is edited by award-winning producer and editor Daniel Polsfuss, whose past documentary projects include The Barbed Wire Club, about a group of men imprisoned in Japanese POW camps; Gen-X, which investigates Gen-x-ers’ outlook on media advertising; and Imagination Reality, a profile of Chinese Tai Chi Master T.T. Liang.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

Movie trailer and information on Begging for Billionaires: