Don’t fall for Starbuck and “Staying off the Interstate”

About ten years ago I took a road trip from Los Angeles to visit my parents in Montana. After a couple of weeks, I drove back via my sister’s place in Nebraska. When leaving Christy’s place, I thought I’d try something. What if I made it all the way home to Southern California without touching an interstate highway or spending a cent at a national chain company.

It’s too easy to default to the easy … get on the highway, get off and eat McDonalds – and get back on the highway, and on and on. But isn’t there more?

My first stop was in Oklahoma. It was noon … lunch time, on two lane State Road 14. Out of nowhere was a little grocery store … and next to it was this huge black gentleman laboring over a barbecue barrel. This was lunch! After three dollars, great conversation – and the best pulled pork barbecue sandwich I have ever had, I drove on.

Now I could go on about the next two days. I could talk about Pie Town (the pumpkin pie is to die for!) … but I think you know how it’ll turn out. Every stop was memorable. Little I did know that venture would result in a business and life purpose I’m putting in play today.

Pie Town Cafe

Understand who your community really is … and who it isn’t

In the iconic 1950’s play, ‘The Rainmaker, by Richard Nash, a charming con-man named Starbuck arrives in a drought-ridden western rural town in Depression era America – and promises to bring rain in exchange for $100. The metaphor of Starbuck is alive and well in the 21st century. The difference however is that rain has been replaced with jobs and prosperity. And Starbuck has been replaced by big box retailer. They role into communities throughout the country with their caravans of snake oil promises and roll out with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) in tax and real estate concessions. However, the jobs turn out to be part-time minimum wage and the prosperity is disguised as instruction in getting food stamps.

A Civic Economics study from 2007 showed the state of Arizona’s then-$5 million contract with OfficeMax was causing the state to lose $500,000 per year in economic leakage. The methodology shows OfficeMax did not offer 62 percent of their employees any health-care benefits, costing Arizona taxpayers significant money to support them through the state’s health-care plan, which drains the economy.

BOSSIER CITY, LA – When Bill Winkler opened his small archery shop, he was prepared to compete against businesses large and small – but not against a government-financed competitor. “The day Bass Pro opened here in Bossier, the number of arrows I sold dropped off by 50 percent,” says Winkler.

A Bass Pro Shop opened in Bossier City in 2005 after city officials promised to give the retailer $38 million to pay for the construction of the 106,000-square-foot store in this Red River community. Such deals are commonplace.

Cabelas

Both Bass Pro Shops and its archrival, Cabela’s, sell hunting and fishing gear in cathedral-like stores featuring taxidermied wildlife, gigantic fresh-water aquarium exhibits and elaborate outdoor reproductions within the stores. The stores are billed as job generators by both companies when they are fishing for development dollars. But the firms’ economic benefits are minimal and costs to taxpayers are great.

An exhaustive investigation conducted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity found that the two competing firms together have received or are promised more than $2.2 billion from American taxpayers over the past 15 years.

Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” says Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.

All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars … they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”

City and county officials are vastly overmatched in this game of sleight of hand. All they can see is the land of Oz, not the price to be paid getting there or the tactics of the ones behind the curtain. So when some politician, left or right, points to the supposed needed support of some government intervention (a regulation, a mandate, a subsidy or a tax break), they have created an alliance with big business. And unfortunately by default, they’ve made their enemy free-enterprise and our local Main Street entrepreneurs.

This is where you need to understand who your community really is. It’s not your Wal-Mart, it’s not your Target, it’s not your corporate owned McDonalds and it’s not the big box store down the street. They may be in your neighborhood … but they’re not your neighbors – they are not your community!

These faceless corporations are here to take – to take your money, to take the life blood out of the locally owned firms who are your community. The more you give them – the less you have to give to those businesses that really matter, your neighbors – your real community.

Four years ago, September, 2011 – I visited my home town, Minot, North Dakota. Earlier in the year, Minot was devastated by a “once in a century” flood … a flood that caused the evacuation and of one-third of its population and the destruction of countless home and businesses. I went back with my friend Sean Key to attend a benefit relief concert put on by the Black Eyed Peas. The B.E.P. had never even been to Minot, yet they raised nearly $2 million for the victims.

????????????

Surrounding the stage, were the logos of the various businesses that contributed their time, effort and money to the relief efforts. Of these sponsors – all were local. None of them were national, even though many had presence in the town. There’s a Walmart in Minot. There’s a Target in Minot, and the there’s three McDonalds. But only the local businesses gave their time, their effort and resources.

Inequality isn’t a problem of the size of the pie

Much has been said about the unprecedented inequality we face in America, for good reason. Since the recession of 2008 virtually all economic recovery has been usurped by the top 1% and mega-corporations they represent. The rest of us are in virtually the same place as we were six years ago. Unemployment may be lower, but underemployment is higher and earning are frozen in time.

There’s not a lack of money in America. It’s going to wrong the places, accumulating (with no outflow) like those pools of stagnant water in your backyard that breed mosquitos. Any time you patronize a national retailer over a locally owned business, you are sending money out of your community. You are sending money to offshore accounts, to bloated institutions or worse yet greedy, self-serving CEOs. Every time you use Bank of America over your local credit union, or Home Depot over your local hardware store … you are killing your community, it’s losing a little bit of what makes it different – what makes it what it is.

40% to 50% percent of each dollar spent at a locally owned business stays in the community. Yet only 15% percent does with a large corporate entity, like Walmart, Target or Home Depot. What does that tell you! That’s 30% that could go to local parks or local business owners that would in turn spend it at other local business owners and on and on.

Will you let your community be just another mile marker on the interstate highway of sameness

There’s more to it than just economics though. Inside you there’s a part of your community. It’s what makes you what you are. The people, the experiences you had grabbing your morning coffee at the local coffee shop. It’s that antique table in your kitchen you bought at the second-hand store on Main Street. They’re part of who you are. It’s memories. What type of memories do you conjure up from a box store? Do you want to want your defacto town square, the place where your community congregates be Wal-Mart? Believe it or not, in much of rural America, that is exactly becoming the case.

This phenomenon is not happening by accident. These corporate retail behemoths recognize this is the ultimate market position. Not only do they crowd out smaller competition, they become a community’s sociological hub. And these hubs they create will not care about your town’s culture, its history and least of all – what’s made it different. On the contrary, your town will be made up of the same – the same as all the other towns and cities up and down the interstate … indistinguishable from each other except a different number on a mile marker.

Those communities that choose not arm themselves with the tools of grass-roots local sustainability will be left in the wake of big box store corporate boom and abandonment. Those communities still ‘wowed’ by the lies of Wall Street and the erroneous promises they make will be left to scrape for the economic and intellectual crumbs they feel benevolent enough to leave behind as they march from neighborhood to neighborhood re-enacting Sherman’s insidious Civil War ‘March to the Sea.’ Community 3.0 is my idea of the toolbox that I believe can provide the ammunition for us locals to fight back.

Interstate highway

Do you want your community to be one ‘off the interstate,’ creating memories that’ll make you smile when you’re sitting on your porch years down the road. Or do you want it to be yet just another mile marker of sameness.

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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