Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Actual Cost of Low Prices

Oh, man. Here we go again...

I can't imagine that Sam Walton could find Bellaire or Antrim County on a map. Could he find it, I can't imagine he could tell you much about it, other than what his market consultants could tell him.

He couldn't tell you how the Bellaire Senior Center has been showing films about connecting local farms to the local economy. He couldn't tell you about the struggle that great local businesses like Short's Brewing Company and the Bellaire Smokehouse have had in dealing with the Village leadership. He certainly can't tell you where the best morel picking spots are, or who owned the sheep that got loose on Orchard Hill Road last summer.

This week's Antrim County News reports that the Bellaire Village Planning Commission would like to invite Wal-Mart and Meijer to Antrim County.

First, this is odd because there's no room within the Bellaire Village limits for either of these big box stores (for those of you outside of the midwest, Meijers is a Michigan based "little-box" that's since grown up to be a big box, including learning how to secretly fund elections and sue political rivals), which means these buildings and enormous parking lots will wind up well out of any downtown. Beyond that, I was sure that the idea of a big-box store saving your small town was dead five years ago. Really? Low prices, sure, I get that. I get it. I do. But what is the cost of those low prices?

The first cost is this: that more money leaves the community. It works like this: you spend $10 at WalMart, and at least $9 of it leaves; if you pay with a credit or debit card, it literally leaves the community immediately. Spend that money downtown at Ruthie's Dairy Twist and some of leaves, sure, but a whole lot more of it stays, because they spend that money on local landscaping, marketing, sign repair, accounting, legal and other services that WalMart has centralized in Arkansas. I've got nothing against the people of Arkansas, but I'd prefer to get that money spent in my town first, since it was mine to begin with. Also, there's a good chance that the owners of a local business will eat, drink and entertain themselves locally. Economists call that the multiplier effect and it means that every dollar that we can keep in the community (by spending it locally) does $2 or more in business. Besides, doesn't China have enough of our money already?

The second cost is this, and it's a doozy: Antrim County Planning Commission Barb Bradford thinks competition from a big-box could serve "as a sharpening tool, and the 'beginning of a new flourishing community.'" See, our favorite hardware stores, groceries, wine retailers and other mom and pops just need a good "sharpening" from a multinational company with an economy larger than Ireland and the Phillippines combined. Thousands of small towns across the US have become something quite the opposite of "flourishing communities" thanks to the impact of big-box retailers. It'd be great to hear from them before we open a door we can't close, or close a dozen doors that will never reopen.

There are more costs - wages, health care, benefits, community giving or concern for local natural resources. In every category big-box stores fall short when compared to local alternatives; and there's a reason: Sam Walton doesn't live here. He doesn't care to live here and he doesn't care about where the morels grow, about Rubber Ducky Days, Pandemonium Pale Ale or homemade marshmallows. Despite what Ms. Bradford believes, he is not a partner in our community development.

But look, there's been thousands of arguments like this made, and thousands ignored. What's most important is that the citizens (because we're not just consumers) of Antrim County take some time to have an honest conversation about the true cost of low prices and the impact of a big-box store BEFORE the contracts get signed, the land gets purchased, the attorneys show up and all hell breaks loose. I'd rather divide this community over this argument than lose it over a rushed decision to invite the zebra mussel into the lake.

P.S. Those low prices haven't been quite so low lately, and with a rapidly falling dollar, a slowing US economy and the most expensive oil in history (used to ship all those cheap goods here from China) it's looking like those low prices will be getting higher for a while to come.


turtlewoman said...

For what it's worth here's my 2 cents: I lived for a few years in the beautiful little Rocky Mountain town of Salida, CO (pop. 5,000). There was a lovely downtown with 1 traffic light, lots of small "Mom & Pop" type businesses which serviced the community very well. Some of these businesses had been serving Salida for many generations. Then Wal-Mart was allowed to come to Salida. One ofter another of these little shops were forced out of business as more and more people took their business and their dollars to W-M. I have been back to Salida recently and it has changed - drastically and not for the better. There is now a strip mall atmosphere out on Hwy. 50 which is also where WM is located. The downtown is filled with antique shops where service oriented businesses used to be. Salida will never again be the same thanks to the big box stores.

Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that by allowing such stores into a community will ever be a good thing. Yes, prices are lower because these stores buy by the trainload. No one stops to ask what the hidden costs are: sweat-shop labor, child labor, enormous transportation costs with all of the embedded energy involved, low wages for employees, and the list could go on and on.

I sincerely hope the people of Bellaire and Antrim County rise up and fight against this atrocity.

Lindy Barnes

Jt Brennan said...

Little stores that make a little profit off common items will not have that revenue after the super department store opens. And the recession will direct responsible mortgaged households to purchase economically, i,e, at the cheapest source.
Jt Brennan Indiana