“Now you know who really has your interests at heart,” reads a recent advertisement in the Cape Cod Times that explains that a locally owned business returns a much larger share of its revenue to the local economy compared to an absentee-owned chain.
The ad is part of a series of ads published in Cape Cod newspapers last fall by a new grassroots organization called the Smart Planning and Growth Coalition (SPGC). The group formed last year with the goal of promoting a more sustainable economy based on small, locally owned businesses and higher wage industries.
Cape Cod is one of the few regions of the nation governed by a regional planning body, the Cape Cod Commission, created by voters in 1990. All developments over a certain size (10,000 square feet in the case of retail) must gain approval from both the town and the CCC, which reviews proposals according to a set of environmental and economic criteria.
The CCC is also responsible for crafting an overall vision for development on the Cape. The current Regional Policy Plan (RPP), adopted in 2002, says that the region should focus on creating locally owned businesses, channeling new investment and growth into existing town centers, and limiting megastores and retail sprawl.
The goals are great, says SPGC, but not enough is being done to implement the vision. Many towns have not incorporated these goals into their own local comprehensive plans. The CCC itself can only respond to development in a piecemeal fashion, and its standards for reviewing the economic impact of chain retail projects are much too weak. Out of twelve-pages of minimum standards that projects must meet, only three lines are devoted to economic impact.
Over the last few years, the Cape has been inundated with proposals from big box retailers and smaller chain stores. Wal-Mart opened its first store on the Cape in an abandoned Bradlees outlet in the town of Falmouth. Home Depot is likewise proposing to open in an old Bradlees in Hyannis. Stop & Shop is building a 70,000 square foot store in Orleans.
Thanks to the CCC and regional planning guidelines, these stores are significantly smaller than their counterparts elsewhere and are located in existing retail buildings.
But those factors only slightly mitigate their cumulative impacts on the Cape’s economy, according to SPGC Executive Director Felicia Penn. She says the stores undermine locally owned businesses, drain dollars from the region’s economy, and strain town budgets. She points to a recent study in Cape’s largest town, Barnstable, that found that big box stores require more in pubic services than they return in tax revenue (see article above).
Cape Cod is already “over-stored,” according to SPGC. Retail space per capita is many times the national average. Low-wage service jobs account for nearly one-third of the Cape’s employment, and 29 percent of all families do not make enough to cover basic living expenses. Chain stores are not only adding to problem of low-wage jobs, but may be impeding higher wage businesses by consuming the region’s limited land and eroding its historic character and appeal.
All of these themes were highlighted in SPGC’s print ads, which can be viewed on its web site.
The group plans to focus mainly on research and education during the next year. It has been giving presentations to town councils and community organizations, will soon begin running material on public access television, and has a emerged as a regular voice in the local media on economic development issues.
SPGC is also committed to fighting harmful development proposals. Currently the group is working with other organizations to block a proposed BJ’s warehouse store in Hyannis. It would be the first free-standing big box on the Cape—”the camel’s nose in the tent,” according to Penn.