Sunday, March 18, 2007

Big-box bait and switch, Part III (Can we get there from here?)

This will be my final installment in my brief look at big-box blight, as it spreads across Maine (as well as many other similar areas of the country), felling trees, paving over fields and creating asphalt wastelands where fowl and fauna once roamed. My intention isn’t to be too overly dramatic. For me, however, the Wal-Mart issue is one that really pushes buttons and hits close to home.

I love Maine. Anyone who has read my book, or reads my posts about the Pine Tree State has figured that out by now. I know there is always a danger in standing against what some call progress. It’s easy to be labeled a crank, overly nostalgic, or even, a Luddite. There are times that I wear those badges, with a certain amount of pride. On this issue, however, I know I have company that makes this something more than just my own personal hobby-horse.

We can start with the Brookings Institute Report, Charting Maine's Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places that has garnered statewide support and praise. With the exception of a handful of the usual naysayers and negative types, the response has been primarily positive. What makes this even more impressive is the bipartisan nature of the support, with most of the state’s leaders and legislative contingent endorsing its findings.

For the people who have been paying attention and in particular, those of us that have lived here over the past 20 years, the explosion in low-density development that characterizes sprawl is quite evident. This is an area that Maine will have to address. Jobs are important, particularly well-paying jobs that pay a living wage for Maine’s workers. Not only Maine, but many other rural areas of the U.S. are finding that their local economies are being strangled by the influx of big-box retailers that exploit the local labor market and inject little or nothing into these communities in the way of social capital.

The Economic Policy Institute has a helpful calculator that offers the ability to find out where the starting point should be in wage structure. If you want to talk economic development and real job creation, I think this is a good starting point. Instead, as is most often the case, local officials are hailed when they create a couple of hundred entry level jobs, paying $8 or $9 an hour. This type of job creation just contributes to the ongoing demise of the middle class and kills any substantive economic growth that benefits people in the long run.

If you haven’t already read Stacy Mitchell’s book, I suggest taking some time this spring to plow through it. It is amazingly readable, given Mitchell’s thorough research and density of material that she packs into the book. In my opinion, it is one of the more important books to read for anyone who desires sustainable local economies and communities where people, rather than profits, are given priority. I also suggest the organization that Mitchell is affiliated with, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

In addition to the EPI’s calculator, their site has a lot of pertinent material that will help you to better understand the dangers inherent in big-box development. Information is power and sites like this one will help you acquire the information that you’ll need to speak intelligently to your friends, neighbors and family members about why you have issues with Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target and other similar corporate retailers.

All of us can be agents for positive change in our communities—in fact, we should be striving to be people who are willing to fight for local and regional values, preserving our unique landscape, one which befits the area of the country where we live. We don’t have to succumb to the homogenization that has overtaken so much of the U.S. By banding together with other folks who value their local bookstore, farmer’s market and neighborhood grocery store, or coffee shop, we can be like the two mothers, Eleanor Kinney and Jenny Mayher, in Damariscotta, who cared enough about their small community and its unique character to organize a group of other like-minded residents and as a result, Wal-Mart wasn’t allowed into that area of Midcoast Maine.

I’ll end by saying that there are locally-owned businesses that aren’t much better than the Wal-Marts of this world. In fact, there are businesses owned by Mainers that stock an ample supply of merchandise manufactured in third-world countries and that rely on exploitation of labor in those parts of the world. There are other businesses, while considerably smaller than Wal-Mart that still engage in tactics and seek their own success, at the expense of other smaller businesses. That’s one of the major drawbacks with capitalism’s model. There are always going to be winners and losers.

Given the choice we have, however, I still think we can do better than bowing down before the big-box deities of the retail kingdom. By preserving our local economies, we’re maintaining control over an important area of our daily lives, in a world where control and autonomy is rapidly disappearing.

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