Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"Retail ‘leakage’ has Pullman’s attention"

Mega-kudos to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News for picking growth as the theme for last Saturday's issue. I thought the various articles were relatively fair and balanced, and most of all the issues raised were LOCAL. That's all I have ever wanted in the debate over Wal-Mart and growth on the Palouse. Discussions of "slave labor" and "sweat shops," outsourcing of jobs and globalization, unionization, living wages, health insurance, etc, etc. belong at the state and national level. No local government official has (or should have) the power to affect those things. Each community has to make its decision based on how growth fits THERE, not somewhere in California or Vermont.

Michelle Dupler had a simply AWESOME story about retail sales leakage in Pullman. Michelle, who covers Pullman for the Daily News, totally has her finger on the pulse of our important issues.

Linda Landers was 19 when she moved to Pullman. Discussions about the Palouse Mall had just begun.

Landers thought the mall was a good idea. That idea quickly fizzled when city leaders caved to pressure from a few vocal opponents, and the mall went to Moscow.

Three decades later, residents of Pullman are hungry for more retail.

They shot themselves in the foot with the Palouse Mall,” Landers said.

Recent studies show Pullman residents spend between $92 million and $100 million in Moscow each year. A report commissioned by Moscow’s No Super Wal-Mart group found Pullman had retail “leakage” in every category but dining out, while Moscow had retail surpluses in all categories.

Some of that leakage will be recaptured if a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter is built in Pullman, and a 600,000-square-foot shopping center is built along the Pullman-Moscow Highway.

Some Moscow and Latah County residents are worried growth on the Washington side of the state line will come at their expense. There are tax dollars and jobs at stake.

“If anything goes in on the Washington side, it will be detrimental to the Idaho side,” said Steve Fischer, a Deary resident who works in Moscow.

Fischer thinks there are enough stores in the region to support the population’s needs, and further retail growth should be in the nature of small, locally owned stores. He’s worried large stores will be a drain on infrastructure.

“I’m not anti-growth, but I think we should grow within the parameters of our existing services,” Fischer said.

Moscow has been a retail center for the Palouse for years, going back more than 25 years to when the Palouse Mall first was proposed.

Without the mall, Pullman was left a virtual retail desert. The handful of small, niche shops couldn’t meet all of residents’ needs, said April Coggins, co-owner of Pullman Honda.

“Before ShopKo came, you couldn’t buy a pair of women’s socks in this town,” Coggins said.

Even after ShopKo opened in the mid-1990s, many Pullman residents found themselves driving to Moscow to find items they wanted. Those residents now are welcoming the prospect of having more places to shop within Pullman and Whitman County.

I think we need the competition. We need to be competitive with Moscow,” Landers said.

It isn’t only Moscow that Pullman and Whitman County need to compete with, said Dave Waterstraat, a Whitman County resident and owner of Blue Water Taxi. He drives to Lewiston whenever he needs home repair or building supplies. Having a Lowe’s open in the proposed corridor shopping center, as has been announced by the developer, would save him a lot of miles.

It would be of great benefit to both communities to have a store closer than Lewiston,” Waterstraat said. “I think the positives of having a store that close outweigh the negatives.”

Among the negatives cited by some Moscow residents include a drain on the region’s diminishing aquifer and on police and fire services from Moscow. Those issues were raised by the city government in an appeal of Whitman County’s decision to approve the shopping center. The appeal was rendered moot when the Boise-based Hawkins Companies withdrew its initial application until it could compile more information about possible environmental impacts.

The developer submitted new plans Thursday.

Raymond Thomson and Mikela French, a pair of law students living in Moscow, are concerned not only about the development’s effect on infrastructure, but that it will draw shoppers away from downtown Moscow. They’re worried businesses will go dark, leaving some residents jobless or with no choice but to work in a large retail store for low wages and no benefits.

“If downtown merchants do well, they’ll be more likely to give good jobs with benefits,” French said. “The larger employers have a bad reputation, a bad history.” [He's joking, right? Downtown stores pay better and give better benefits than larger employers?]

Waterstraat said some people in Whitman County would be happy to have a job at all. He recently hired a new tax driver for his business. The young man had applied at fast food and retail businesses in Pullman but was told there were no jobs.

More retail will bring more jobs, Waterstraat said.

“It may use more resources, but that’s the nature of the beast,” he said.

Robert Greene lives in Pullman and owns BookPeople in Moscow. He suggested communities in Whitman County could be better served by an overhaul of Washington’s laws than bringing in large-scale retail.

“The Washington tax system needs to be examined. The business and occupation tax works against small businesses,” Greene said. “They have a good minimum wage, but that can work against small businesses too.” [While I agree with Greene's proposals to overhaul the Washington tax system, keep in mind he was one of the signers of a business petition to the Latah Economic Development Council against a Moscow Wal-Mart Supercenter. His agenda is clear.]

He said Pullman should focus its economic development efforts on projects that make Pullman more attractive to visitors, like the downtown Riverwalk, and on improvements at the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport. He also believes more cooperation is needed between Pullman and Moscow to develop as a region, rather than as competitors. [Ah, liberals without borders again]

Pullman is thinking about the region when it works toward commercial expansion, said City Supervisor John Sherman. A wider distribution of retail improves the quality of life in communities throughout the Palouse. It also helps reduce some impacts on infrastructure in cities like Moscow and Pullman if people in outlying towns can shop locally.

“Imagine if everyone in the county had to come into Pullman to buy groceries — the impacts on streets,” Sherman said. “We don’t selfishly want all the retail in Pullman. That wouldn’t be very healthy.”
Isn't it funny that the only people in that article that had anything bad to say about economic development in Pullman either live or work in Moscow? And as fun as it would be to selfishly have all the retail in Pullman, I think ultimately it is more realistic to expect a balance between Pullman and Moscow. Both towns should be able to provide the essentials to their residents (thus keeping the bulk of tax dollars local), but each town could have specialty shops that would to appeal to out-of-town shoppers. Then we could have a truly symbiotic relationship, versus the parasitic one we have today. And it all starts with a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

1 comment:

mikelaf said...

Dear Tom,
You had some great thoughts about the economic drain on Pullma. But you obviously haven't done your homework, as evidenced by the fact that you didn't even bother to find out if I'm a man or woman. A quick google would have shown you I'm a she, not a he, and further could show you that no, I'm not joking when I say that downtown retailers pay better than Wal Mart. They do.

Where to begin? Wal Mart doesn't pay its employees enough to afford health care. So, who pays for the health needs of Wal Mart's workers? We do. Wal Mart employees are left to seek treatment at our near-breaking-point emergency rooms, which is a huge drain on tax dollars.

Wal Mart further takes advantage of corporate welfare by taking tax breaks on new properties for five years, then moving up the road once the tax incentives have been used up, leaving unsightly, hulking buildings with massive parking lots, which scar the Palouse (in my humble opinion).

Wal Mart further has a notorious reputation as well for mistreating workers, discriminating, and firing and re-hiring to avoid paying higher wages. These things in turn mean that employment is destablized, tax revenue is driven down, and so there's less money for infrastructure and tax breaks, the sort of things that draw investement, development and entrepreneurs to an area. Aren't these the kinds of things that are going to stop the Pullman drain?

Even if at first blush it may not seem like Wal Mart pays less than downtown retailers (although in some cases, its true that downtown merchants pay better AND offer better benefits--it's pretty hard to pay people LESS than Wal Mart, and also hard to offer them less health coverage than Wal Mart), if you look at the big picture, Wal Mart actually creates economic downturn.

There's no such thing as a free lunch Tom, and so when it comes to Wal Mart trying to sell us on 'cheap goods', it's up to us girls to stick together, do our homework, and look at what's truly best for the Palouse in the long term.

Not Joking in Moscow, I remain yours,
Mikela French