Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Small College Towns and Development

The Wal-Mart PR staff must cringe whenever they hear that Wal-Mart Realty has identified a small college town as the location for a new Supercenter. For these towns are the habitat of Homo Moonbati, that unique species of gray-haired hippie still hanging on to their tie-dyed shirts and the Sixties in an out-of-the-way place that offers them refuge from the 21st Century. Only these days, instead of the draft and Vietnam, they are protesting against Wal-Mart and "urban sprawl."

A good example of this is Ellensburg, a small town of 17,000 in the middle of Washington, which is the home of Central Washington University. Ellensburg, just like Pullman, has a distinct anti-growth element in town. In November 2005, I blogged about Jack Schultz, a consultant who specializes in facilitating new jobs in the high-tech and manufacturing sectors specifically in small town America. Schultz wrote on his blog about his visit to Ellensburg and their big-box ban:
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 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.

It [downtown] 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.
The debate in Ellensburg continues. From the November 6, 2006 issue of the Yakima Herald Republic:

City Manager Ted Barkley is a Costco shopper.

Like many others here, he drives 40 miles to Union Gap for the warehouse's low prices.

But while the travel may save a few dollars, Barkley is concerned that trips such as his are costing Ellensburg millions of dollars in retail sales -- and the resulting sales taxes to help pay for city operations. Several studies show that Kittitas County could be losing from $80 million to $300 million in potential retail sales.

And the sales taxes that would be generated from those sales is needed more than ever as the area rapidly grows.

According to a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau estimate, nearly 17,000 people live in Ellensburg, a 37 percent increase since 1990.

Although more people are paying property taxes, it's still not enough to cover all the city's operating costs. City officials believe that more sales and sales tax would cover the difference.

"We have no industry, and the taxation pattern to provide amenities is expensive," Barkley said. "That puts us in a difficult position to keep the tax levy low to provide amenities people want."

Most residents agree that Ellensburg needs more stores, but there's less agreement about how many or where they should be. Some think growth should be in the downtown core. Others say land outside the city's center should be developed.


But a local group called Citizens Against Sprawl/Save Downtown Ellensburg is against developments such as the Lamb proposal. They argue the projects hamper the vitality of downtown Ellensburg, with its art galleries, niche shops and century-old brick buildings.

They say retail development should be limited to downtown and perhaps nearby areas, such as the Canyon Road area off I-90, which is already lined with blocks of fast food restaurants and hotels.

Beverly Heckart, a member of the group and a retired Central Washington University history professor, said there's worry that such developments would draw customers from downtown and cause those businesses to shut down.

The group has handed out fliers, written essays on its Web site and held meetings to explain why it's against development outside the downtown. It points to downtown Yakima, which continues to suffer years after retail development shifted to Union Gap.

"We're not totally against big-box stores. We're against big-box stores three miles from town, that is, three miles from the center," she said.


Drawn out development disputes aren't unusual, said Robert Kuhlken, chairman of CWU's geography and land studies department.

It took Ellensburg four years before deciding to allow Fred Meyer to build a 142,000-foot-store just outside the downtown core. Similar concerns were raised about the store's design and its effect on the downtown.

The store opened in 2001 after spending $20 million for land, environmental cleanup, roads upgrades and decorative improvements, such as brick pave stones, to create a design similar to downtown's.

In his book, "A Rediscovered Frontier," Kuhlken examines how small Western towns have dealt with rapid growth and change.

Towns such as Ellensburg, which are prepared to deal with only a certain amount of growth, are forced into major land use changes when growth is faster than expected, he said.

"Some of the places are becoming totally overwhelmed by the rate of growth," he said.

But regardless of what retail development takes place, cities need to be smart about designing it, Kuhlken said: "Stopping retail on the outskirts on town will not revitalize downtown."
Think about that. Ellensburg is suffering sales leakages and they have a FRED MEYER!!! How much more is Pullman suffering with ZERO big box stores and bigger population?

And if it took FOUR years to get Fred Meyer in Ellensburg, which has NO controversy surrounding it. Four years or so to get a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Pullman may not be as bad as we think.

I loved this statement: "We're not totally against big-box stores. We're against big-box stores three miles from town." Sound familiar. It should. And it's all BS. "Saving downtown" is just a buzzword to hide the elitist/anti-capitalism agenda. They could care less. A blog called "Sustainable Girl" gives some critical insight into what these anti-growther's true mindset:
T. (my other half) and I attended a community meeting the other night, held by a group called Citizens Against Sprawl / Save Downtown Ellensburg. Wal-Mart wants to build a major retail center at one of two freeway interchanges a couple miles outside of town, and the townsfolk are concerned, naturally, about how this will impact Ellensburg and its businesses. It's obvious to all of us that despite claims to the contrary by the plan's proponents, this will not draw more business to Ellensburg, but will have the opposite effect. Wal-Mart is all about cheap one-stop shopping, and there's nothing to encourage customers to travel a couple more miles into town. Also, a big store like Wal-Mart will attract other businesses to build adjacent to it; so even the employees of the store won't travel into Ellensburg to eat lunch or do their own shopping ... they'll stay right there at that major interchange, which will have become a strip mall when it's all said and done.

There was a lot of talk at the meeting about growth: how growth is inevitable, how we must "own" the change that will inevitably come, how we must expand as a town and attract tourists and businesses, while maintaining our historical charm and appearance. This is where I get confused. Is it necessary for a town, or any place for that matter, to grow? If you have a community committed to maintaining the town exactly how it is, with the exception of changes that lessen environmental impact and encourage sustainability, isn't that enough? Or do inflation and the larger economy dictate that we must always be growing economically, generating increasing revenue? Building more businesses? I don't know enough about it. I do know that "no growth" is a radical enough idea that I don't dare bring it up at these meetings. I'm sure it would seem especially outlandish coming from some young chick who's only been in town a few months (I'm not that young really, but T. and I were among the youngest there). Does anyone out there have some insight for me on this? Capitalism is based on unchecked and infinite growth, which, as far as I can tell, is a doomed proposition. There is no bottomless well of resources, so at some point (now, I hope) we must decide we've got plenty, or more than plenty, and find a way to reduce our impact. At the meeting, folks kept talking about keeping growth in the town, building up instead of out, encouraging local business and light industry, etc. But no one asked, why do we have to build or grow at all?
For the record, Wal-Mart has never announced any plans to build in Ellensburg, but why let that stop a good ol' snob/socialist/treehugger Kum-Ba-Yah hoedown? Be sure to read all her comments about her fear of turning her children into "little consumers" and "evil rich companies." She has obviously been drinking the entire pitcher of Kool-Aid.

One of the comments to this post is even more illuminating:
I really enjoyed this post - it got me thinking. I don't like Wal-Mart and never shop there. However, I am thankful for the Target that we do have here in Ithaca should I need to make a one-stop shop for things I need. Three years ago we only had a run-down KMart. But more often than not, the kids and I are downtown supporting the local clothing stores, eateries, book and music stores, and toy shops. I could never live in a big city. I love my quirky little college town that is so rich in diversity and acceptance and intellect.
These naive buffoons that complain about the "evil corporate media" and "crass consumerism" have bought into it all hook, line and sinker. They actually believe that a store like Target is "politically correct" because it's marketing campaign appeals to more "upscale" and "intellectual" customers. 'Nuff said.

1 comment:

Paul E. Zimmerman said...

The more I read this stuff, the more I've come to wonder: is all of this anti-Walmart, anti-capitalist angst driven by the belief that wealth is a zero sum game? Everything these people say seems to lead back to that erroneous assumption, and it's all the more tragic if so, since a very simple correction to their thinking would dispel all of these false fears.