Thursday, December 29, 2005

The big box vs. local entrepreneurs

My Word by Richard Salzman
Eureka Times Standard

I want to thank my friend Cletus Isbell for furthering the discussion on big-box stores in his My Word of Dec. 23. I do, however, want to respectfully disagree with three points he makes.

First, I disagree that those consumers now comfortably buying items off the Internet (and getting them home-delivered) will switch to the big boxes. Instead, the big box's customers will mainly be those of us who now frequent locally owned and operated brick-and-mortar stores.

The second and third reasons have to do with the intertwined subjects of jobs and taxes, and can perhaps be best illustrated with the example of Home Depot, a timely subject coming before the Eureka City Council in the form of a zoning change request for the Balloon Track. A Home Depot would have a devastating effect on everyone who sells everything from appliances to flooring, hardware to cabinets, lumber to home heating. The list goes on and on (and a Best Buy -- another possibility -- would include everyone in music and home electronics). Since Home Depot now also does installation, work would be snatched from all sorts of contractors and tradespeople, too.

Yes, some driven out of business will be able to get jobs at the Home Depot, but the ripple effect on our community will be devastating. The key difference is that Home Depot spends most of its money with out-of-the-area suppliers -- and sends all of its profits back to corporate headquarters.

Whatever short-term gains there may be in the tax base would pale in comparison to the money drained from our local community. Because whenever a dollar is spent at a locally owned company, it recirculates several times through the local economy. The county has already acknowledged this economic fact of life in a comprehensive study called “Prosperity -- The North Coast Strategy” (available at www.northcoastprosperity.com), which the city of Eureka signed onto.
I urge readers to just do a Google search on “big box impact” and read any of the myriad studies detailing the disastrous effect these stores can have on the economy of areas with a limited population like ours. Our locally owned and operated small businesses are the lifeblood of what has proved to be a vibrant and resilient local economy, but there are limits to how much more impact we can sustain.

The loss of extraction-industry jobs already has been hard on us, and small businesses are the best hope for living-wage jobs. Yet even those businesses which might survive the initial impact and aren't forced to close down will have to cut back: Cut back on their workforce and downsize their American dream. There is simply not enough business in such a small community to support both the big box and the local entrepreneur.

I don't know that the government could or should stop a big box from coming to town, but business owners, tradespeople and all their customers and neighbors alike ought to tell their elected officials, starting with the Eureka City Council, not to facilitate the process through zoning changes or the rejection of study grants.

Richard W. Salzman, an artists' representative for illustrators working in advertising and publishing, has long been active in local Democratic politics. He lives in Trinidad.

The opinions expressed in this My Word piece do not necessarily reflect the editorial viewpoint of the Times-Standard.

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