Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Eight Days of Truth - Day Two

Yesterday, we visited Boone, NC, a small, rural college town. Today we return to the Northwest to visit another small, rural college town, Ellensburg, WA, population 15,414. Ellensburg, some 200 miles to the west of Pullman, is the home of Central Washington University. It is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Boone, an example of what happens when big boxes are kept out of town.

Jack Schultz is the CEO of Agracel, Inc. , an Industrial Development firm specializing in the agurban® market. Since its inception in 1986, Agracel's focus and passion has been to facilitate new jobs in the hi-tech and manufacturing sectors specifically in small town America. The publisher of Forbes Magazine, Rich Karlgaard, said, "The question for small town America is acute. What causes some communities to boom even as others slowly die? Jack Schultz knows the answer."

Jack runs a blog called BoomtownUSA. He visited Ellensburg back in August of this year, and this is what he reported:
Ban Big Boxes?

“We’ve only got one big box retailer here in the county, a Fred Meyer store, that is just on the periphery of the downtown area,” Debbie Strand head of ED for the county told me on our tour of the community. “The city and county have zoning which doesn’t allow other ones to be built.” I decided to address the issue with the 20 or so local people who assembled for a lunch in my honor in Ellensburg.

There obviously was a great deal of questioning of the decision to ban big boxes among the people that I talked with. Some wanted to continue the ban to protect their historic downtown. A few had objections to big boxes in general, particularly to Wal-Mart. Others were concerned about the retail leakage out of the county, estimated at $80 million to as high as $200 million+ and the possible long term impact upon the county.

I expressed my opinion, prefacing it with the comment that this should be a local decision, not one that a consultant or someone from the outside should make. I told of other attempts to ban big boxes, which have universally back-fired on the communities and states because big box retailers are much more nimble than governmental decision makers. I talked of the savings that the big boxes offer because of their much more efficient distribution model, amounting to over $600/year for a family of four in studies that I’ve read. I asked: Why you would want to burden the local citizens with that added cost as a penalty of living locally?

I related my own experience of strolling around Ellensburg’s downtown early in the morning and not finding a place to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper. I was disappointed to see over a dozen vacant buildings in the downtown. Obviously banning big boxes hadn’t led to a boom in the downtown area. I also was shocked to find their only big box store closed early in the morning. Without competition, they obviously didn’t see the need to be open at odd hours.

Ellensburg has a wonderful potential with their downtown area. It is historic, with wonderful brick and stone buildings. It should be a magnet for the community. It should be an entertainment center with people living in the lofts above the retail shops. But, it won’t become such a place by trying to stifle competition, keeping the big boxes out of the county. It will do so by finding its own niche, building it and developing its own special sense of place.


Ray Lindquist said...

In E-burg with over a dozen empty store fronts, that would be us also IF it was not for WSU and the near by Moscow, but in time that would be us I think. Thanks Tom for bring these examples to our attention so we can compare how "big-box" stores would or would not help. It seems that they do help in lots of different ways. Keeping them out of E-burg has not helped stop the decline that is for sure.

April E. Coggins said...

Pullman used to be a bustling retail town. Pullman used to have the was considered then the "big box stores". Moscow was the sleepy town. When the Mall was proposed, a hand full of college people came down off their hill and railed against progress and scared our downtown business people. When the Mall pulled up stakes and moved to Moscow, a great feeling of triumph came over Pullman. Then slowly, businesses closed and nothing replaced them. Now, downtown Pullman is a specialty district to Moscow's big box environment.