Saturday, April 28, 2007

Is Maine anti-business?

Maine Speaker of the House, Glenn Cummings (D-Portland), has proposed a bill that would require developers building any retail establishment larger than 75,000 (big box store) square feet to file an impact study in the community where it will be built. The bill stipulates that the cost of the study will be borne by the developer.

According to Cummings, Maine is seeing development taking place at a rate of ¼ acre per hour and he feels that it’s time to take a look at the issue.

“The one thing we have left—now we don’t have PhD's flowing out of our universities; like some states do, we don’t have people building shoes for 49 cents an hour, like Hong Kong, or Romania—the one thing we have left that’s an international niche—it is a place we want to come to.”

Predictably, this rankles those people who feel that progress in Maine consists of a series of parking lots, interconnecting big box stores, like Lowe’s, Target, Home Depot and of course, our friends with the yellow, smiling face. People like the Maine Merchants Association and the Maine Real Estate and Development Association.

Jim McGregor is opposed to the bill and spoke about his concerns.

"Maine Merchant Associtation’s interest in this bill was no doubt peaked by what it feels is a growing and unjust anti-retailing sentiment in the Maine Legislature. And that LD 1810 is yet another example."

Roxane Cole, President of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association stated that she feels that Maine towns are already capable of determining what’s best for them.

Linda Gifford of the Maine Association of Realtors had this to add.

“Are we open for business in Maine, or are we not open for business in Maine? We think this sends another anti-business, don’t come to Maine message that we’re concerned about.”

All three of these opponents of LD 1810, the bill proposed by Cummings, speak from the short-sighted and damaging perspective that Maine’s future economic health is tied to low-wage, sprawl producing development. This kind of thinking has a long history in Maine, going back to the days when lumber barons and others built their empires from Maine’s plentiful swaths of hardwood and other natural resources, harvested by unskilled laborers with strong backs and power provided by Maine’s abundant rivers. You still see vestiges of that model in the large houses built by these industrial barons, in Bangor, Augusta, Hallowell and other places. In fact, most of Maine's rivers, by the late 1960s and early 1970s were choked with the aftermath and refuse of this economic era.

It seems intuitive to me that this bill, dubbed the Informed Growth Act, would provide local towns and municipalities with the kind of information that they really need, in order to assess the true cost to their communities of the arrival of Wal-Mart, Target, or some other retail behemoth—costs associated with traffic flow, the need to beef up police forces, environmental impacts and how it will affect the local economy in general. This is exactly the type of information that helps local residents to be more informed, educated and better able to assess the true costs of “everyday low prices.”

Susan Porter is the owner of Maine Coast Books, in Damariscotta and one of more than 140 small business owners who have stated their support for the bill.

“What does a developer fear from an impact study, if he honestly believes he is creating prosperity?"

I’ll answer Porter’s question by saying that what developers fear is no longer being able to shove their brand of non-sustainable development down the throats of the communities that they run to, pave over, grab their bag of loot, before running to the next open space, where they reenact the same parasitic scenario.

In my opinion, Cumming’s bill isn’t anti-business, unless, of course, your idea of business is doesn't include developing career options that include jobs that pay living wages, support the healthy growth of Maine communities and enable Maine to compete on the global stage. Retail sector jobs provide support for none of these and in fact, is leading Maine down a path to the bottom that perpetuates an economy that leaves us with two kinds of Mainers; the haves (who exploit low-wage workers and benefit from that model) and the have-nots.

I wrote three long posts that are a pretty good starting point for anyone who wants to understand the concerns that Glenn Cummings, Susan Porter and others have with uncontrolled big box development.

In Big-box bait and switch, Part I, which developed after I read Stacey Mitchell’s excellent book, Big Box Swindle, I lay out my own concerns about the preponderance of big box development that stretches up and down our state, like some kind of mange, fouling our pristine countryside and former open spaces.

If you want to have a sense of big box development run amok, drive to our state’s capital, in Augusta and in particular, the area across from the Augusta Civic Center. That area continues to metastasize, like a cancer. Apparently, Augusta wants more of this, as the west side of town, behind the Senator Inn, where you exit I-95 to access Western Avenue, is now being dug up and paved over, under the guise of economic development and with a new set of big boxes, anchored by a Target store.

I hope Cumming’s bill passes, because I think it’s exactly what Maine needs. The opponents calling it anti-business show their business orientation to be firmly in the camp that says the function of business is to always put profits ahead of people. In my book that’s not healthy for our communities and shows an anti-progressive business sentiment, oriented only towards maximizing profit.

Maine can do much better and ought to, particularly in light of growing concerns about global warming and climate change. Our state ought to take the lead in sustainable development and promote that to the rest of the U.S.

[The majority of information for this post is based upon a feature story that was done by Murray Carpenter, during Friday’s (April 27th) Maine Things Considered Program, on MPNN radio.]

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