Superstores and Democracy

Date: 3 Feb 1995 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Superstores and Democracy

by David Morris

February 3, 1995

A most remarkable exercise in democracy is taking place today in America. Not in Washington but on main street. The issue isn’t welfare reform or taxes but rather bigness and diversity. Or more accurately, the role of superstores in our future local economies.

Retail superstores are washing over us like a planetary tsunami. Wal- Mart alone has over 2200 large stores and $80 billion in annual sales and is adding more than 125 new stores a year. Some superstores have under one roof as much retail space as entire downtown business sections. Several studies show that when superstores are built they undermine the existing local economy. Sales to local businesses drop and money that used to stay in the community is siphoned off to remote corporate headquarters.

Is it any wonder that main street businesses are scared and citizens are angry?

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton once insisted, “If some community, for whatever reason, doesn’t want us in there, we aren’t interested in going in and creating a fuss.” That may have been the old Wal-Mart. Under new management, Wal-Mart no longer takes “no” or even “maybe” for an answer.

The citizens of Sturbridge, Massachusets, in a non binding referendum, voted 600 to 100 against a proposed superstore. Wal-Mart decided to press ahead anyway. Three out of four residents of East Aurora, New York signed petitions opposing a change in the zoning law that would have permitted a Wal-Mart. The developer continues to seek the change.

After a bitter controversy, East Lampeter Township, Pennsylvania agreed to a compromise. It would allow Wal-Mart to build but only if the company paid the cost of widening the necessary roads. The retailing giant refused and is now arguing in court that state law prohibits a municipality from forcing a developer to make off site improvements.

The debate about superstores exemplifies democracy at its finest. In many cases citizens are voting directly on the issue. Even when local planning agencies or city councils make the ultimate decision, average citizens have significant participation. They don’t have to travel to Washington and do battle with well-funded and well-connected lobbying groups. They are not learning about the issues from 20 second sound bites on t.v. but engage in extensive face-to-face debates or in ongoing letters-to-the-editor or debates on local radio.

Sometimes superstores win these debates. Sometimes they lose. No matter what the outcome, the process itself is healthy and empowering. In important ways it brings down to the local level the national debate about our rights and responsibilities as citizens and as consumers.

As consumers we like the idea of saving a few bucks a month by shopping at a giant Wal-Mart. As citizens we look beyond immediate pocketbook gratification and take into account the impact of a giant Wal-Mart on the local economy. Do we vote to save a few dollars in the short run? Or do we vote to preserve the long term economic health and character of the place in which we live?

A few months ago the citizens of Solvang, California answered these questions in dramatic fashion by enacting a ban on “formula restaurants”. These enterprises are “virtually identical to restaurants in other communities as a result of standardized menus, ingredients, food preparation, decor, uniforms and the like.” In effect, Solvang has outlawed sameness and encouraged diversity.

Vermont is the country’s leader in giving its residents the authority to decide on the structure of their future economy. In 1970 Vermont passed Act 250. That land use law created a citizen panel that must approve large scale developments. The panel, the Vermont Environmental Board, must take into account the development’s impact not only on the natural environment but on the economic environment.

Two months ago the Board rejected a permit for Wal-Mart to build a store in St. Albans. The Board found that for each dollar in public benefit there would be three dollars in public cost. In short, Wal-Mart was a very bad economic deal for Vermont.

The Board gave Wal-Mart permission to come back again but only if it offers a “credible study” of the store’s costs and benefits and offers a bond or money to compensate muncipalities for any adverse impact. Vermont’s citizen based planning process is the primary reason the state is the only one in the nation that still lacks a giant Wal-Mart or other superstore.

Communities that reject superstores may wind up in court. There the battle becomes much more onesided. A Wal Mart may have a legal budget as big as the total budget of some of the towns it wants to occupy. But in the court of public opinion, the advantage of bigness is muted. Decisions are being made at a level where people can inexpensively and conveniently engage in a conversation among themselves. Wal-Mart may be able to buy full page ads in the local paper but superstore opponents can easily go door-to-door and give the newspaper’s subscribers the other side. Wal-Mart can pool the information resources of all of its stores but Wal-Mart opponents have a credible alternative information network as evidenced by Al Norman’s idiosyncratic and masterful news service, Sprawl-Busters ALERT.

The debate about superstores on the local level informs and illuminates the debate between conservatives and liberals on the national level. Conservatives insist they want to give government back to the people. But all too often it appears that they’d prefer to abolish authority rather than delegate it. Conservatives say they believe in strong communities but they rarely promote mechanisms by which a community can protect itself against a privately owned and powerful destabilizing outside force.

Do you support the right of communities to “just say no” to superstores? Are you against big government or all government? Assuming you believe in democracy, what do you think we should have the right to vote on? These philosophical questions come down to earth very quickly when the issue is superstores and the fate of rural America.

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.