In defense of community

September 21, 2019

This week we focused on predatory businesses, and by ‘focused’, I mean, talked shit. Most of the response was positive and most people understand that these sorts of businesses are extremely detrimental to communities and to the local economy. They understand they have harmful business practices and place profits before ethics. Most have a pretty fair understanding of how these businesses operate, and that at the end of the day, they will take as much from a community as they possibly can, regardless of the damage it may do.

As always, much of the pushback came in the form of “well this is how capitalism works” and “they wouldn’t exist if the market didn’t demand it” and “they provide a product in underserved communities.” All absolutely true. And thank you, I truly welcome and appreciate opposing opinions. But all of these objections miss the point. The point is- I am not a retail consultant and I don’t believe that unbridled capitalism is good for communities. I am, however, an advocate for community, and it is the very notion that all economic development is good economic development, that is wreaking havoc on our cities and towns.

I understand that capitalism means prioritizing profits. Some businesses are more ruthless than others to this end. Not every business is good for a community, in fact some are quite bad. I am not suggesting we throw out capitalism, I am suggesting we throw out the people that worship at the alter of capitalism and shout “anti-business and socialist” anytime anyone objects to payday lenders and their ilk. If I were an unscrupulous retail consultant, I would be all in favor of such business practices. If profits were the only thing that mattered to me, then most of these businesses are killing it. If morality doesn’t come into play, then of course, take as much as you can get. Ask for incentives and concessions, seek out tax abatements, take advantage of anyone and everyone you can. It is your capitalistic right to do just that.

Well, I happen to not give a shit about the bottom line of national chains. There is no shortage of consultants and experts out there that are well versed in ways to make the rich richer and drain communities of their precious resources. I don’t happen to be one. Very few of us are in the business of trying to assist communities to grow their own local economy, because this doesn’t make anyone rich. It just makes thousands of cities stronger and has the potential to improve millions of lives, but yeah, it’s not going to put a Rolex on the wrist.

Capitalism is going to capitalize. That’s what it does. I have my complaints with the system, mostly the political leaders that have stripped away the guardrails that once protected us, but ultimately, if properly controlled, it’s our best option. Here is the problem though, it HAS run amok. The big business bullies have been able to lobby to loosen regulations thus creating an unleveled playing field. When business people don’t like laws, they call them regulations and regulations are baaaaaaaad. Laws good, regulations bad. Got it? They use experts to tout how much of an economic impact their business will have when they come to town. How many jobs they will add, how much the tax base will increase and how city leaders best roll out the red carpet. They don’t mention how shitty their jobs are, how employees will be on public assistance, how many businesses will close and how the community will suffer longterm. They leave that out. Funny enough, the same business that know they can make a buck in your community will ask for tax breaks and concessions. As if somehow, all of the sudden, the numbers no longer work and taxpayers have to kick-in. Even funnier, when some communities reject these businesses, these same chains with their hands out, will threaten litigation. If you don’t let them build what they want, they will try and scare you into it. It’s all part of the same scam. Your town has resources and they want them.

I have head this argument plenty as well, “we can’t support X business here” or “we had a market but it closed.” Allow me to let you in on a secret, if a national chain shows up in your town, they have already determined you have the resources they need, otherwise you wouldn’t hear from them. They are just taking advantage of the fact that no one in your town is already doing it, or worse, they plan to undercut the existing business to drive them out. EVERY SINGLE COMMUNITY HAS THE MEANS TO SUPPORT LOCAL BUSINESS. No exceptions. None. This just can’t be argued.

The other area of pushback came from people that were just happy to have a place to get groceries. I get this, I truly do. Any shelter will due in a storm and any retail is good when you have nothing. I don’t blame residents for feeling this way, I blame local elected officials for not doing a better job. I blame economic development offices for prioritizing chains over local businesses. Most cities make it very easy for the national chains to build garbage in a field, but make it incredibly difficult to renovate an existing building for a local business. Economic development incentives (read tax payer money) flow freely to national chains that don’t need it, but rarely to a local investor or entrepreneur, that desperately do. I sympathize. Is it fair that Dollar General is the only place you can get groceries? No. Is it fair that Walmart is the only employer hiring in town? No. But this sad situation did not occur on accident. This is very much the result of poor policy and the prioritization of sprawl over local. Residents are the victims of such circumstances and not the cause. Every time elected officials have chosen big business over small, national over local, profits before community, they have done you dirty. They have conceited to the idea that your town doesn’t deserve better. That your community can suffice on scraps from the table.

So back to the point, national chains want to maximize profit and that is fine for them. This is their business model and it works for them. This is directly at odds with your wellbeing as a community. I am not concerned with the margins of Dollar General and Walmart, I am concerned with rebuilding local economies. If you want to have a vibrant city, if you want to have good jobs, if you want to have a proud populace, if you want to have a resilient economy, if you want to retain your best and brightest, if you want to survive, do the following: resist sprawl; fight to keep predatory businesses out; put community first; foster local ownership; raise your standards and make every decision with the following in mind, will this make our people proud? These vulture businesses are legally allowed to continue to rip off anyone they like, but please please please, don’t let it be you. You have a choice. You can continue to be the place you are now and keep doing what you are doing, or you can be the place your residents deserve. You can be a place people are proud of. You can be the place your town founders intended. The choice is yours, only everything depends on it.

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