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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 25, 2008
Coast to coast, big boxes cast a shadow over America
By Saranac Hale Spencer
NEW SCOTLAND The struggle here, between big-box retail and the residents who would become its neighbor, is mirrored across the country, on the West Coast.
“I would call us a small town with growing pains,” said Cliff Barrett, a councilman in Scotts Valley, Calif. About a year ago, he said, Target proposed a new store on the outskirts of his town, of about 12,000. Barrett isn’t seeking re-election in the November election, but he has endorsed Frank Kertai, who said of the Target issue, “This was the thing that galvanized me” to enter the race for council.
Kertai is the president of the board of directors in his toney development, which is next to the proposed Target site. When the store was first mentioned, his reaction was, “Hey, they’re welcome,” he said, just not in that location. After doing some research, though, Kertai now believes, “The problem is, large stand-alone retail stores… tend to have a negative impact on local municipalities.”
He referred to a study conducted in the Bay Area in 2004 that examined supercenters, like Wal-Mart and Target that include grocery sections, and their impact on the grocery economy.
“The bottom-line calculation of supercenter tax revenues is more nuanced than often appreciated,” the study says. “First, an expansion into non-taxable grocery sales will not generate the sales tax revenue per square foot of a conventional discount store. Second, net sales tax revenue will be reduced to the extent that supercenter sales simply displace sales at other stores in the same municipality. At a regional scale, supercenters bring the potential for shifting sales tax revenues across municipalities, creating a regional pattern of winners and losers.”
Sphere Development, a company based in central New York, unveiled plans to build a 750,000-square-foot shopping center at the old Bender melon farm, at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A in New Scotland. In order to make the development viable, Sphere would need to include a large, big-box, retail store, Gregory Widrick, a managing partner at the company, said last spring. Widrick did not return a call this week for comment, but, in an e-mail to town officials this month, he said, “A project that contains a large retailer, such as Target, is capable, of promoting the comprehensive plan objectives.”
In response to public outcry after the plan was made public, New Scotland implemented a six-month moratorium on large-scale commercial development. The town board appointed a five-member committee to advise it on bringing zoning in the commercial district into line with the town’s comprehensive land-use plan the committee is considering a cap on the square footage to be allowed. It has asked the town board to extend the moratorium beyond Nov. 21; the board has scheduled a hearing on a three-month extension.
Signs with baseball caps encouraging residents to support a 50,000-square-foot limit have sprung up around town after New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development distributed them; the group organized to oppose Sphere’s proposal.
Liz Kormos, a member of the committee who is also a member of NS4SED, attended a session at the Guilderland Public Library last week where Stacy Mitchell talked about her book, Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Business. Kormos told Mitchell that New Scotland wants more retail, but wants it to be local business. “It kind of becomes the chicken-or-egg problem,” Mitchell answered. She suggested looking for a developer who favors local businesses over chains, and, like Widrick, Mitchell stressed the importance of finding an anchor, although she suggested a grocery store.
During her talk, Mitchell contrasted big-box chains with independently-owned businesses, retelling an anecdote that she came across while researching her book: A toy-shop owner told her that he could vouch for the quality of everything in his store he had tested all the products. People start businesses because they love something, she said, and they open their shops near home.
“I certainly wouldn’t be banking on this to last a long time….” Mitchell said of a big-box store in New Scotland during a phone interview yesterday. “They don’t have a long-term commitment.”
When the shells of big box stores are empty, sometimes after just 10 years of use, the municipality often becomes responsible for finding a tenant or razing it, Mitchell writes in her book. She had no concrete figure for how much empty retail space is left, “but the tally is somewhere in the neighborhood of several hundred million perhaps approaching 1 billion square feet,” Mitchell writes.
Some municipalities have started requiring developers to post a demolition bond, to cover the cost of destroying the building should it go empty. New Scotland has that type of requirement in its tower law, said Paul Cantlin, the town’s building inspector, but nowhere else.
“This is the kind of thing they look for,” said Linda Fletcher, who has been fighting the construction of Target in the company’s hometown, Minneapolis. “If you don’t have the rules in place God help you.”