I like to eat at BJ’s. At the counter, old men gather every morning to drink coffee and talk about the weather. The waitresses know my name, what I order, and how I like my hash browns. Sometimes the owner stops by my table to say hello. Their pies are homemade.
Further down the street are all the icons of American fast food, with their familiar signs, impersonal service and boring food. Nobody can beat their prices, because their food is prepared in bulk, frozen solid, shipped around the country in big trucks, and served by kids earning minimum wage. Instead of seeing familiar community faces behind downtown counters, people who know your name and your mother’s, whose kids play ball with your kids, Americans sit in cars, order through loudspeakers, and get chemically enhanced, over-salted machine-made “food”.
People talk a lot about the importance of small business, and then get a burger at McDonald’s and go shopping at Wal-Mart. These ugly big box stores and the fatty food purveyors are often blamed for killing local downtown businesses. But it’s not their fault.
Over the past 40 years, the aggregated choices of American consumers have forced thousands of diners, hardware stores, independent pharmacies, and Mom-and-Pop groceries to close up.
Why? Price has something to do with it, but less than most people think. For 2 fresh eggs done the way I want them, 2 pieces of the kind of toast I like with jelly, hash browns, endless coffee, and a piece of pie, I paid $7.42 at BJ’s. At the local McDonald’s a large coffee with no refill, large fries, and a piece of their formerly frozen pie cost $4.47. They don’t serve bread or eggs, but you can get a thin gristly burger on a squishy roll, and come out a bit ahead.
Or so it seems. But the savings we think we get from these giant corporations are illusory. The website of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance offers an eye-popping list of scientific studies over the past decade to show how big box development actually costs American taxpayers and communities billions of dollars . The destruction of small businesses by giant chains means reduced property tax revenues. The opening of a new Wal-Mart on Chicago’s west side in 2006 caused about one-fourth of businesses within 4 miles to close, some Loyola University researchers found. Away from big metropolitan areas, big boxes in larger towns cause the loss of businesses in surrounding smaller towns.
Taxpayers often fund the construction of big box stores through tax rebates and provision of infrastructure services. Over the past two decades, communities in the St. Louis region have spent $5 billion to fund the construction of big box stores and shopping malls. But the combination of lost businesses and increased costs for roads and other infrastructure for big box stores can mean that this “commercial development” never pays anything back. In Barnstable, Massachusetts, increased costs to local government were greater than new tax revenues, and fast-food restaurants were the most costly kind of development. Smaller retail stores, in contrast, produced a net plus in tax revenue vs. cost. Because Wal-Mart in California pays 30% less than other retail stores, taxpayers there pay nearly $100 million extra dollars a year to provide various forms of public assistance to Wal-Mart workers, who fall below the poverty line.
In hard times, corporate America has a cold heart. Although their charitable giving may seem impressive because of the size of their firms, small businesses give significantly more to local charities per employee than giant corporations. During the last Depression, American families facing hard times were carried by their local shopowners, their neighbors, sometimes for years. Community solidarity spread the few resources around, so the maximum number of people could survive unprecedented economic hardship. Try getting a meal at Burger King on credit.
We can’t blame politicians, the media, or corporate executives for the decline of American small business. Every time we imagine we’ll save a few cents by driving past our neighbor’s store or restaurant to some big box on the strip, we make a decision about the economic future of our community. We send money out of our communities to distant corporate headquarters. We get inferior service and inferior products. We discourage local entrepreneurs and create more unskilled minimum-wage jobs.
The lesson for all of us is that we do better for ourselves and our communities if we patronize small businesses and use local tax dollars to encourage local entrepreneurs, not big boxes.
In BJ’s or the Three-Legged Dog coffee shop or other local restaurants, I see familiar faces. Instead of convenience and speed, I get friendliness.
So, how about that crazy weather? And Marie, please bring me another piece of your peach pie.
Taking Back Our Lives