Sunday, December 11, 2005

Ghost [Down]Town

As my wife & I are trying to familiarize ourselves with the Grays Harbor area (Aberdeen-Hoquiam-Cosmopolis), we’ve tried hard to stay away from the Big Box stores (e.g., Walmart) and the major chains. Instead of dropping by those kinds of stores one can find in almost any community, we’ve worked diligently at visiting locally-owned and run businesses.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that Aberdeen has a health food store. Unfortunately, The Market Place doesn’t have the kind of selection we had hoped for. They don’t sell organic produce, they don’t have a deli or juice bar and their selection of soy milk is very limited.

One of the owners explained the reasoning for these shortcomings. For starters, Grays Harbor County (which relies heavily on the timber industry) is a very conservative place. Alternative health consciousness has not reached a critical mass here. This means that certain services like a juice bar are not yet economically viable.

While the lack of consciousness certainly plays an important role, the more important reason is the unfair competitive advantage that Big Boxes and chain stores play. All the major grocery stores in the area have an organics section, albeit VERY small ones – I’ve already checked each one out (except for Walmart which I REFUSE to step foot in)!

Because of their sheer economic size, the chains can often dictate to suppliers a very low wholesale purchase price, the kind of price that a small locally-owned company can’t come close to. Consequently, if a big chain store and a local mom-and-pop outfit sell the same item, you can be sure that the retail price will be far less at the chain store.

Of course, this means that the average consumer (the working poor and, often, the middle class too) will feel it a family financial necessity to shop where the price is the lowest. This is one of the chief mechanisms that [inter]national corporate chains drive locally-owned firms out of business.

Companies like Bitar’s – La Vogue Department Store in downtown Hoquiam. This family-run operation has been a fixture in Hoquiam for 95 years. Sadly, the owner told me, he has little confidence it will be around 95 years or even 30 years from now. In fact, he lamented the plight of most of the local businesses that have remained in the town’s once-vibrant downtown core.

From his perspective, the problem is easy to identify – strip malls, shopping centers and Big Box stores. They funnel citizens away from the center of town to the edges. As residents spend less and less time in the city center, they correspondingly spend less and less time supporting local businesses.

This owner asked the same questions scores of local business people in small towns ask across this nation: How do we revitalize our downtown core?

It’s not impossible to do, but, it will continue to be a difficult project as long as area residents lay out the red carpet for the Walmart’s of the world. Every time a new Big Box takes up residence in one town or another, we can be certain that a number of small, family-run local businesses will shutter their doors forever. And, too often, this is the very catalyst for destroying a small town’s central business district.

There is a slight glimmer of hope. Across the nation people are starting to wake up. They’re beginning to realize what is being lost through the Big Box revolution and some are starting to fight back. Walmart is finding that many communities are no longer welcoming them with open arms.

That, in and of itself, is reason to be hopeful.

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