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Posted: July 21, 2009

Can homegrown businesses and big-box retailers coexist?

Author of "Big-Box Swindle" speaks in Summit County

Katie Roberts

How do big-box stores and national chains affect local, national and even worldwide economies? This question continues to be a focus of debate.

Earlier this month, Stacy Mitchell, author of "Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retails and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses," spoke to a packed room of business owners and Summit County residents, who are concerned about a proposed development project that will include a new Home Depot within the town limits of Silverthorne. Located on the banks of the Blue River’s headwaters, the development will require significant wetlands mitigation.

A small contingent from Eagle County, where Target plans to open a new store, also came to hear Mitchell, who is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project, a program of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

During the two-hour Summit Independent Business Alliance event, Mitchell presented slides filled with recent studies and research: Examples included the hidden consequences of uncontrolled big-box development and significant trends toward the revival of locally owned businesses and regional economies.
Mitchell argued the big-box retail model is a failing one. It’s a trend that, like great American malls, once held much promise, but, over time, has lost ground as a reliable source of economic security. Tax dollars generated by big-box giants actually displace those of created by a compilation of smaller, independent or co-operatively owned businesses, Mitchell said. They also cost communities more in terms of subsidies granted and the ongoing, under-considered price tag that’s affixed to infrastructure, road maintenance, public safety, crime and displaced jobs, she said.

Vacated big box stores create blight in towns all across the U.S., as well as other serious, expensive problems for towns. What’s more, Mitchell said, mega-chains — driven by stakeholder interests alone — are designed and built to promote speedy, business-like shopping behaviors, which reduce the odds that social interactions take place. Meanwhile Main Street retail districts, farmers’ markets and other community-based business and shopping venues foster a slower pace and opportunities for rich social interaction, which preserve community bonding and preserve local culture.

In today’s busy world, choosing a homegrown, independent business isn’t always the most convenient option, but it’s an important one, Mitchell said. Similar to sitting down and having dinner with your family around a table — as opposed to grabbing fast-food and eating it on the way home — making a better choice for the community welfare takes effort, commitment and time. Yet this dedication delivers irreplaceable value, she said. 

Mitchell also talked about what communities are doing to ensure their economic welfare remains within the hands of locals.

She expressed the success of “buy local” campaigns and how these messages are positively influencing consumer behaviors in approximately 130 towns, cities and regions nationwide. She outlined need for local, state and national government to set “new rules” that defend and bolster the rights and opportunities of independent business owners.

Suggestions included collecting sales tax from online retailers, capping mega-store sizes and following the leads of other communities, including the state of Maine, which has adopted an “Informed Growth Act,” that requires business-impact studies in the event of any mega-chain development and the dissemination of public information about report conclusions.

Mitchell also highlighted the lack of support for entrepreneurial ventures and told glowing success stories of communities that have found creative ways to promote homegrown business, particularly through collaborations involving progressive governments, local credits unions and banks, developers, community-owned ventures and more.

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Katie Roberts is executive director of the Summit Independent Business Alliance.

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