Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thinking Outside the Big Box

My wife Kim and I sent the following email to our County Commissioners prior to the vote on Text Amendment 11-06, to permit 'big box' retail in suburban commerical zoned properties. Thanks to Commissioners David Dunmyer and Bob Simmons for their courageous vote against this damaging amendment.

Good morning. As citizens of Centreville, my wife and I would like to write in strong opposition to Text Amendment 11-06, which would eliminate the square footage cap for retail establishments in Suburban Commercial areas. It is our belief that the reasons for opposing this ordinance far outweigh any possible reasons for supporting the measure, and we would urge you to vote against the 11-06 on Tuesday morning.

1. The main property in question, near the corner of 544/213, is in a part of the county that, unlike Kent Island, maintains a strong rural character. However, if a big box retail store were to be located in this area, it would set off a chain of events that would be difficult to avoid: namely, the large-scale development of the 213 corridor in northern Queen Anne’s County, quickly altering the landscape from one of working farmland and centrally located small businesses, to one of vast parking lots and diffuse, unorganized large retail businesses that will undermine the viability of existing Kingstown, Centreville, Sudlersville and Chestertown businesses. It is also highly probable that this would kick-start many attempts by landowners to get their land rezoned, and if the commissioners have established a strict rationale that “any growth is good growth,” at what point will you be politically able to stop granting landowner requests for rezoning? It will get very tricky; best to take a reasoned approach to growth by voting down 11-06.

2. It is false to say that “big box” retailers will keep money in Queen Anne’s County. In fact, the opposite is true, since the vast majority of big box retail profits will be sent to corporate headquarters in far off locations (in the case of Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Arkansas; in the case of Home Depot, Atlanta Georgia). This as opposed to buying products from locally owned vendors, who keep all profits local, and generally employ local people at higher wages. Since altering the APFO is also reportedly on your agenda, it is likely that any positive property tax revenue (since ALL sales tax receipts are sent to Annapolis, and not kept in the County) created by a large retailer will be spent upgrading associated infrastructure such as roadways, storm and wastewater capacity, and the added cost of increased police and fire service requirements in a part of the county where police and fire costs are currently quite low.

3. While the population center of Queen Anne’s County is Kent Island, the 544/213 intersection is 38 miles from Kent Island. It is unlikely that any Kent Island citizen will choose Kingstown (38 miles) over Easton (30 miles) or Annapolis (20 miles) for its large retail needs. Indeed, I would like to see the County Commissioners focus on increasing Kent Island visitation to existing Centreville businesses and our plethora of existing retail and commercial space. Since it is true that so many people in the county cross the bridge to get to work, what reason would they have for driving nearly forty miles from Kent Island to Kingstown, when they likely work or drive in very close proximity to a large retail location four to five days a week?

4. For a variety of reasons, downtown Centreville is dying. From high rents to low foot traffic, the solution is likely complicated and will require the cooperation of both town and county officials, but as of right now, nothing is being done to ameliorate the problems of downtown Centreville. I can assure you that a large retailer located in Kingstown will be the final blow for Centreville; the county seat will continue its downward spiral into a ghost town. If Centreville continues on its current path, I believe that you will see a further loss in property values, and a decrease in tax revenue that will largely offset any gains a large retailer may bring to the County. I urge you to drop the idea of big box in suburban commercial, and instead focus on breathing life into our towns and communities. If you take this approach, you will have the complete support of all of your constituents. Comparisons to downtown Easton are simply na├»ve. Easton’s historic downtown was already a viable economic location prior to big box retail coming to greater Easton, which meant that there was some insulation against the pressures of big box retail, (although someone should tell that to the now defunct Legal Spirits, Thai food restaurant, and others that have since gone under). Easton also has place-appropriate anchors (Avalon Theatre, Tidewater Inn) that fit the identity of the town. Centreville lacks these anchors, but with the commitment of the commissioners to work on this problem, I believe new life could be breathed into Centreville, I will support your efforts to do this. But it cannot be done with a big box retail location ten miles up 213/301.

5. A big box retail location dropped in to 544/213 is the definition of sprawl. You absolutely cannot say that you are anti-sprawl if you vote for this measure. It may be true that Queen Anne’s County and Kent County are the only counties left in Maryland that do not have a Wal-Mart. I don’t think the people of Queen Anne’s County want, nor do I think the commissioners should be trying, to turn our county into a homogenous extension of the rest of Maryland. The fact that we do not have large retail blight sets us apart from the rest of the state in a good way, not in a bad way! Many other counties have Wal-Marts, Targets, Home Depots, and Lowes, but those counties are currently in precisely the same state of budget deficits that Queen Anne’s County is in; in fact, some counties with big box retail have it much, much worse. There is not one single example of a big box retail location solving a local (short term) budget crunch. Big box retail solves no problems, and creates many. Talbot County, which has a Wal-Mart, Target, Lowes and soon to have a Kohl’s currently has an unemployment rate fully one percentage point higher than Queen Anne’s County, and just went through a similar cut to their school budget as our County was forced to go through; the costs simply are not worth the benefits.

6. It deserves mentioning that the predatory nature of big box retail, which is a fundamental part of their very business model, is damaging to nearly all it touches. For every low-paying retail job that Walmart or Target creates, they likely kill two high-paying US manufacturing jobs, by forcing manufacturers to produce at rock bottom prices and shoestring profit margins, they essentially force through volume purchases the migration of US manufacturing overseas. So while cheaper back to school gear sounds great, cheap retail jumpstarts an endless race to the bottom that leaves middle class America holding a very large bill.

Please oppose 11-06.

Steven and Kimberly Kline

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