Perception that Moscow doesn’t welcome new business could be true, depending on who you ask
Moscow extended a warm welcome to Mike Nelsen when he opened St. John Implement & Hardware on West A Street in 1994.
Nelsen started to detect a change in the climate six or seven years ago.
“There was no particular reason; the weather patterns didn’t change,” he said.
Someone told him St. John Hardware wasn’t the kind of business they envisioned in the downtown area.
“I’ve been involved in the city of Moscow forever; did I do something they didn’t like?” said Nelsen, who was recently elected president of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce. “It broke my heart.”
With the denial of a rezone that would have brought a Wal-Mart Supercenter to Moscow and the institution of the Large Retail Establishment Ordinance — aka the big-box ordinance — in February, some people say there is a perception Moscow isn’t welcome to new business, or is too selective on what it allows.
Some are concerned that Moscow will lose its status as “retail base of the Palouse” to Whitman County, while others say they are just trying to protect the Moscow they know and love.
Nelsen said the cost of housing is so high it keeps some businesses from wanting to locate in Moscow. Only five of his business’ 31 employees live in Moscow.
Skyrocketing property taxes also are an issue, he said, and Moscow needs to actively recruit new businesses to increase its tax base.
Moscow Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Paul Kimmell said businesses in Moscow pay four times their fair share of taxes.
“We’ve been aggressive at building homes, but not as aggressive as building business,” he said.
Idaho is considered a business-friendly state, but Moscow isn’t keeping with the status quo, Kimmell said.
“I’ve always had a healthy skepticism about any new ordinance and question whether this will really be a benefit,” said Kimmell, who also serves as a Latah County commissioner.
County commissioners recently decided against enacting the city’s big-box ordinance in the Moscow area of impact just outside city limits.
Kimmell said Moscow has a creative and engaged community that participates in the political process, but he doesn’t think the voices of business are always heard.
With Hawkins Companies’ proposed development looming across the state line in Whitman County, Kimmell said Moscow residents should be concerned.
“We need to look at what we are doing wrong not to attract business,” he said.
He said there has been a lot of talk about attracting high-tech business to Moscow, but some people are selective about the kind of businesses they welcome.
Nelsen said to have high-tech businesses, support businesses such as plumbing, welding and car-parts stores are necessary too.
Pat Garrett, owner of Moscow and Pullman Building Supply stores, said Moscow can't afford to be selective.
Garrett is building a new store next to the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter site in Pullman. Wal-Mart considered building a super center in Moscow as well, but decided against it after city officials voted down a rezone that would have allowed the company to move forward with its plans.
"Keeping the super Wal-Mart from coming in seems pretty anti-business," Garrett said. "Pullman is very pro-growth right now; they are trying to catch up and be a little more self-sufficient."
Jim Demeerleer, owner of Furniture Center, said the big-box ordinance already is having detrimental effects on Moscow.
"Moscow sent out a message to the business world that if there is any intent in the area for big-box stores, we don't want that, and consequently those larger stores will look elsewhere," he said.
Demeerleer said the word is out that Whitman County is willing to accept new businesses.
“There is not a huge influx of businesses trying to come to Moscow,” he said. “Businesses are going out of business; if we discourage business such as Moscow has done, people will look in different directions for growth.”
Demeerleer said it’s not too late for Moscow to retract the big-box ordinance.
But Moscow City Councilman Bob Stout said the "anti-business" attitude is more perception than fact.
"Some people have this mentality that you have to be pro-business or you die," he said. "As a new City Council, we're looking at how we can serve everybody in the community, not just business owners or people that want to make money with dealings of the city."
Stout said there isn't any one thing the council has done that is anti-business, but he has heard that some view the Large Retail Establishment Ordinance and the city's living-wage ordinance as such.
"Big-box stores are a way to diversify, but we have to protect Moscow in the process, not just worry about large corporations coming to Moscow," he said.
Stout said when people say anti-business, they mean "big business" as opposed to small, local businesses.
"Small, local business we've supported in every way," he said. "People saying we are anti-business are keying on one large retail incident; large corporations coming to our city has drastic impacts on our city."
Jill Bielenberg, manager of The Breakfast Club in downtown Moscow, said Moscow has given a warm reception to current and future businesses.
“We have a great camaraderie with other businesses,” she said. “Moscow is definitely welcoming to new business.”
She said if a business comes in with the attitude and service that would benefit the community, other businesses extend their support.
“We hand out business cards and numbers when a new business comes in,” she said.
Marty Cramer, owner of Cramer’s Home Furnishings, which opened this year in Moscow, said he had a relatively positive experience moving into the east side of town.
“This is our sixth store that we opened,” he said. “In comparison with other towns, Moscow is probably easier.
“The community in general has been very accepting of us; the store is doing wonderful.”
He said rumors of an “anti-business” mentality have been present in every community in which he’s opened stores.
“I haven’t heard a discouraging word in Moscow,” he said. “It seems like one of those things where the people who are complaining are heard the loudest.”
Community Development Director Joel Plaskon said the majority of development applications for businesses wanting to come to Moscow get approved, but the city's decision in January to break the development process into separate hearings may be perceived as anti-business because it decreases predictability and increases the time it takes to move into the city.
Plaskon said the Large Retail Establishment Ordinance protects existing businesses from the adverse impact a big-box store might have on the community.
The ordinance was pushed through quickly, he said, and the amendments being considered should make Moscow appear more business friendly.
The effort to streamline the development process, along with proposed changes to the subdivision and planned unit development code that are intended to add more room for public input, also should make the city seem more friendly to business, Plaskon said.
Kimmell believes more public input in the comprehensive plan rewrite and other processes could make a difference.
“There is the opportunity to include the business community’s voices and create an atmosphere of acceptance and accommodation,” he said. “Perception often becomes reality, and we need to work to dispel that perspective.”Of course Stout and Company want to tell everyone "just go back to sleep, everything is alright." Moscow IS business-unfriendly. And PARD wants this for Pullman? No thanks. Pullman has an opportunity to grow now because Moscow has dropped the ball.
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