Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Big-box Bait and Switch, Part I

It’s difficult to pick one thing and say that it’s the quintessential matter facing us as Americans. But after reading most of Stacy Mitchell’s Big-Box Swindle, I’d challenge anyone to argue what’s a more important economic trend than the systematic gutting of our local business culture and the disappearance of commerce along Main Street USA, as Americans kneel at the altar of the big-box behemoths.

While local, independent book stores close and are replaced by Borders, or Barnes and Noble and locally-owned hardware stores that have been in communities for decades board up their storefronts because they can’t compete with the prices at Home Depot, or Lowe’s, our neighbors continue to accumulate stuff, manufactured off-shore, courtesy of the sweat shops that are necessary for perpetuating our addictions to convenience and everyday low prices. The perpetual pressure brought to bear on locally-owned and community-centered businesses, by these corporate giants chewing up farmland like a virus on steroids, have initiated an economic race to the bottom. Not only have they have pretty much destroyed a proud tradition of locally- owned family businesses, they’ve all but snuffed out manufacturing in the U.S., a traditional occupation that was a foundation of middle-class American prosperity for the first 40 years following World War II.

The loss of both manufacturing jobs and local business autonomy have led to a 20 year decline in the share of national income flowing to the middle class. In all but two states, all new jobs being created pay less than those being lost. This ying and yang of the new economy becomes our daily bread, while at the same time, Americans seem to be helpless to resist shopping ourselves out of any remaining hope of decent jobs, with living wages and benefits.

Mitchell’s book clearly lays out the facts about what’s at stake as big-box stores become bigger and what little prosperity and economic self-reliance remains in our downtowns, if they aren’t boarded up already, is in peril. Mitchell herself, is a senior researcher for The Institute for Local Self Reliance and as such, builds her case fact by fact and anecdote by anecdote.

Her book comes along at an interesting time for me. I’m six months into a job that I’m thoroughly enjoying and actively engaged in some interesting projects. One of these in particular, is locally-focused and is helping to train some people and engage them in a skill-based program that is reaping some positive early results. As I work to help people build a foundation of job skills for the first time and help them take some small, but positive steps in their work lives, I’m also aware that in the community where I’m based, Lewiston (as well as our sister community across the river, Auburn), a plethora of low-wage and low-skill retail jobs have been dumped on both communities in the name of economic development. It seems counter-intuitive on one hand, for business people in the community to decry the skill-level of our workers and then, when skills-based training is provided and the skills of the workforce are upgraded, applaud the efforts of economic development people who ought to know better, as they bring in businesses that are intent on driving down wages and lowering the economic opportunities of people who have already seen their livelihoods turned upside-down when manufacturing jobs, as well as occupations focused on textiles and shoes disappeared, some thirty years earlier.

What’s even more frustrating to me is how many so-called leaders in the community spend so much time patting themselves on the back merely because they’ve managed to open a few boarded-up storefronts, fix a dilapidated arena (at a net yearly loss of $500K) and attract a handful of service industry jobs that still fall short of a living wage, while handing the keys to both communities over to absentee corporate entities like Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, as well as the usual chain culinary establishments. There is only so much disposable income to go around and while a handful of higher-end restaurants have opened and some boutique-style shops have sprung up, those have been in the minority.

Mitchell’s Big-Box Swindle has been a “call-to-arms” for me and has helped me to sense the danger this area faces as we turn over the potential for sustainable growth and forego slower, economic progress, for the pottage of the quick-fix. While job-creation numbers tend to make ignorant bureaucrats genuflect and wax poetic, the lasting damage big-box development will wreak here and in our state capital of Augusta is rarely breached in any of our daily newspapers. While a handful of smart growth advocates preach to the converted, Maine continues to barrel headlong down an economic path of difficult, if not impossible to reverse consequences. While political leadership has never been the state’s forte, it’s hard for me to watch our small businesses, already struggling to survive, lose any hope for the future as large scale, big-box development has been sold, like snake oil of old, to community, after community, all over the state.

I hope to use Mitchell’s book, as well as some other research material she’s made me aware of, to piggy-back on this post with a couple of other related ones over the next week. In fact, I may have found my next writing project, as the subject of people and places being more important than mere profit is an area near and dear to my heart.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Topsham, Augusta and Waterville are other communities that immediately come to mind as being overrun by Mega Retailers. Biddeford as well, I suppose, if what I see from the highway is any indication.

"Come to Maine - The Way Life Should Be! We'll make sure your unique Maine experience has all the spending choices of the place you just left!"

I haven't read Mitchell's book (though I intend to), and perhaps she addresses this, but big boxes are situated in such a way that encourages sprawl and requires the use of an automobile. Both of these are harmful to the environment and sustainable living, not to mention community building. Cripes, the shopping development in Augusta is laid out such that you often have to get in and drive your car to shop in another store in the same freaking shopping center!