Monday, August 29, 2011

The Lessons of Irene

This past weekend, my wife and I survived our first hurricane on the Delmarva Peninsula. Hurricane Irene brought tropical storm force winds and a drenching 20 hours of rain to Centreville and most other Eastern Shore environs. Thankfully our communities were mostly spared from the catastrophe that some had predicted; but as the sun dawns bright, and the skies a clear blue, maybe its time to reflect on the past week of weather.

-While I suppose an earthquake isn't technically weather, last Tuesday I felt my first earthquake while on the phone at my Washington office. It was over by the time I figured out just what was happening, and thinking that the novelty had quickly come and gone, kept on with my conversation with a colleague from Montana. After the phone call ended, however, I went into the street to find a Diet Coke, and what met me in the building lobby was pandamonium. Crowds milled around the streets with no purpose and certainly no direction. I wouldn't go so far as to call it chaos; but if this truly had been an emergency of any magnitude, well, lets just say that the ingredients for chaos were all there in the right quanitities. Federal and state governments spend a ton of taxpayer dollars on "homeland security," but incidences like this one prove that after all those billions, there is no workable plan to get people information.

-Which brings me to my next point, communications. There were none in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Both cell phones and land lines were essentially useless in the couple hours after the event. Again, if this were a real emergency, those of us in downtown DC would be shutoff from the rest of the world in a way that would almost certainly be dangerous. It is somewhat frightening to know that the best method for staying informed during a low-level emergency were social media sites like Facebook.

-Fast forward a few days to Hurricane Irene. Both national and local news outlets were sold on the idea that Irene was going to be a catastrophe of the highest order; they then sought to sell that same idea to a general public all too willing to buy. Even the generally staid Weather Channel wasn't immune from the hyperbole, no longer simply forecasting weather but evoking a sort of doomsday expectation, a morbid and perverse attempt at higher ratings. Generally, the sensationalism of the news is something we can switch off and disregard, perhaps even chuckle at. But in this instance, when real information was needed, it was difficult to find the helpful amidst the high-pitched.

-As a result of this obsession with catastrophe (indeed seemingly encouraging it), my neck of the woods was ignored almost entirely. The Weather Channel, CNN, and every other national news outlet seemed to forget that a 500 mile wide hurricane cannot get to New York City from the Outer Banks without passing through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I suppose that the potential for catastrophe just wasn't high enough on the Delmarva Peninsula for any meaningful coverage. But come to think of it, if the coverage is nothing more than vapid doomsaying, best to leave us out.

-We shouldn't cut every tree in every neighborhood down because occasionally a branch falls and breaks a window. Trees add to the quality of our lives, add to the livability of neighborhoods (if you don't believe that, go take a drive through treeless Northbrook). Sometimes they are dangerous (what isn't?) but let's not let a momentary passion possess us to do something we will regret for a long time.

-People can't drive. Generally speaking, we don't need bad weather to bear this out, but it becomes especially obvious in bad weather. If a red light is out at an intersection, it becomes a four way stop. It is not a license to barrel through as if you've never laid eyes on a drivers ed manual.

-The best lesson of Irene is that the Eastern Shore, and our small town of Centreville is a great place to call home. On Sunday, people came out to gossip and help each other clean up. I hear a lot about what is wrong with Queen Anne's County, but Irene helped us see a few things that are just right.

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

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Race to Rock Bottom

Frank owns a factory that makes winter hats. He is the fourth generation of his family to run the factory, located in a small town in Middle America. Forty percent of the town has a steady, well-paying job in the factory. For years, the company's hats have been in local sporting goods stores, hardward stores and general stores across the country. They had a reputation for being made of the finest quality wool and leather, assembled in America, long-lasting, and good at keeping hard working Americans warm all winter long.

A large retail corporation with plans for global price and sales domination comes along, let's call this company Sprawl-Mart. The executives of Sprawl-Mart like Frank's hats, and while they find his company's family history, local roots, and quality product touching, they think his prices are too high. Too high by half, in fact. But they really want to sell Frank's hats, so the product development director of Sprawl-Mart calls Frank one crisp autumn morning, and offers to buy one million of Frank's hats. Frank's jaw drops! That is more hats than Frank's company has made in the last ten years. Frank will be able to expand his shop, hire more local people, and offer everyone a bonus come Christmas time. But Sprawl-Mart has one condition...the price of his hats needs to be cut by 75%.

Frank is speechless. He sputters into the phone: "But! I can't increase my production by 500% AND reduce my costs by 75%! It cannot be done!" Sprawl-Mart disagrees. They tell Frank that they will be ordering one million hats from someone, whether it be him, or his biggest competitor. Sprawl-Mart tells Frank that once they start selling his competitor's hats in large quanities across the globe, at rock bottom prices, it will put Frank's fourth generation company right out of business. "Find a way to make these hats 75% cheaper," Sprawl-Mart hisses into the phone.

Frank has no choice but to meet Sprawl-Mart's demands, because if he doesn't, it will likely mean the end of his family's business. So Frank calls a factory meeting, and tells the workers, some of whom he grew up with, that the company will be moving it's operations to Vietnam, and that the factory where four generations of locals have worked will be closing down. They already have a buyer for the factory, in fact. A Sprawl-Mart subsidiary, Concrete Jungle Developers will be bulldozing the place to put up high-dollar condos.

One day, Frank walks into a new Sprawl-Mart location just outside of town. He sees Helen, who used to be a foreman at the factory, now she is working for minimum wages and no benefits; she doesn't say hello. Frank see's Marty, who was a talented shop mechanic, fixing a light fixture high up in the Sprawl-Mart ceiling. He shouts a "hello" up to Frank; Marty shouts back down, "No time to talk, gotta wrap up here so I can head to my second job." Then he gets to the aisle where Sprawl-Mart stocks their hats. And there he sees it, the new version of his family's legacy, made out of foreign cotton, foreign imitation leather, and all put together in Vietnam.

This story is fictional in the strictest sense of the word, but many of the products hanging on the shelves at big box retailers across the country have a similar story to tell, stories that are all too real. For every one low-paying retail job that big box retailers create, there is no telling how many good paying American manufacturing jobs they put out of business forever; the kind of jobs that America was built on. This is the cost of the American obsession with low-priced goods. Your cheap back to school supplies and snacks for the big game have a low price, but an incredibly high cost.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Does this photo make my eyes look crazy?

This image of Michele Bachmann on the cover of Newsweek has caused a lot of heartburn lately. While markets tumble, and confidence in the American political system is deeply shaken both at home and across the globe, some people have decided that what's important is an "unflattering" picture of Bachmann on the cover of a magazine.

I'll be honest, the picture shows pretty clearly that Bachmann has crazy in her eyes. But it is obviously a picture that Bachmann willingly posed for, as opposed to some sort of candid, frozen in the moment snarl or expressive frown.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that this picture doesn't make Michele Bachman look any crazier than she actually is. She is a proud member of what Theodore Roosevelt one hundred years ago called 'the Lunatic Fringe.' The fact that Newsweek has a picture on their cover that makes Michele Bachmann look crazy doesn't bother me. Now the fact that she IS crazy is a whole other story.