Next Tuesday's Creating a Liveable 6th and Lamar: Community Forum, meant to address the proposed Borders store at Sixth and Lamar, raises the complexity of issues involving economic choices, and the lack of a clear right or wrong.
The problem, when all is done and said, is us -- we the people. It's easy and convenient to blame government (national, state, local), bureaucracy, greedy developers, evil capitalists, blind greed, crazed insensitivity, and on and on. Given almost any substantial societal problem, to find the root, start at the mirror and then work your way around the room. This isn't to pick cheap targets or counsel cynical despair; it's to argue that most problems are pretty damn complex. Simplifying them just makes it worse.
What the hell am I talking about? For well over a decade, for example, this city was engaged in a sustained war over development versus the environment. Drive anywhere in the Hill Country around Austin, and the outcome of that war is obvious. Is this because of greedy developers and corrupt, or at least insensitive, politicians? No, it is because people moved here from elsewhere or they moved outside of the city, buying houses all over the place. The developers didn't make them do it; armed troops at the command of elected leaders were in no way involved. People wanted houses, they wanted a bit of land, and to live in a pretty place. Just like you and me, so don't start there. We're no more righteous because we were born here or moved here before a certain date; that's a reductive view. There are people; they are living on the Earth, in this place at this time; and all those things result in consequences.
There was an editorial in one of the dailies I read chiding environmentalists for attacking SUV owners. Most of them, it argued, think of themselves as outdoor folks. To alienate them was to estrange a potentially sympathetic voting bloc. As if when I see some huge SUV with an SOS sticker, I know the environment is better off. Maybe the article was satire?
I was thinking about this a lot recently. The other day I had coffee with John Kunz of Waterloo Records and Steve Bercu of BookPeople, old friends both (John reminded me that I traveled to San Antonio to see the Sex Pistols as a passenger with Kathy Marcus and him). They're concerned about the possibility of a Borders moving onto the block behind where Whole Foods is going to move (across the street from its current location). The conversation was focused on much more than just a new chain store invading a neighborhood full of locally owned businesses. It was about how small retail helps define Austin. How chains homogenize rather than support local culture. How we could lose what we have if we don't work to preserve it: Austin is defined not just by its people and quality of life but by the locally owned businesses that are the infrastructure of the soul of the city.
We talked about the city offering tax abatements to this development. When the developer realized the political liability of asking for city support to bring a chain store Downtown, they separated the two construction projects. Then they asked for the abatement for the Whole Foods project only, though the amount wasn't reduced. The abatement is for the developer, not Whole Foods, so regardless of which project it goes for, it helps support both of them.
So here we have the city celebrating Austin-based, independent retail while funding chain development, just as it has long talked about supporting live music while doing almost nothing for that community. I should note that some claim Borders won't negatively impact BookPeople or Waterloo, which is an economic hallucination. We're talking independent operations where the loss of a small percentage of business can have a large impact. Since, according to one study, more than three times as much of the money spent at locally owned independent businesses stays in the community as does money spent at a chain like Borders, there is also a ripple effect.
(A quick aside: What about the traffic? Not just with Whole Foods expanding, but also with adding large retail to the area, what's going to happen? How will this affect the surrounding neighborhoods and the bonanza of quality retail/food/service businesses in the area? The traffic is already bad there for chunks of the day; there's no realistic way to improve the infrastructure. What about the traffic?)
Do we blame city government? Realistically, the city is probably trapped into offering the abatement because of Smart Growth policies. Policies I support, which may seem really stupid now, though I suspect over the decades they'll seem smarter. The reality of government is that fairness is demanded. Legislative initiatives have to be applied equally. That may be the trap the council is caught in here.
The ramifications of this legislative fairness issue are extensive. If, after decades of talking, the city actually tried to help the live music club scene, what could it do? Offer tax abatements to any club offering music? What would be the specific criteria? How could the language describe the kinds of clubs supported? No matter how specific, don't you think discos, restaurants, and bars would throw on a band, any band, for the minimum amount of time to get the abatement? Or else cry foul at the city supporting some forms of leisure activities and not others? Either of these responses would be legitimate. Some businesses are more romanticized than others, but across the board, local business owners are struggling.
Likewise with locally owned, independent retail: How could the city imaginatively support it? Think about this seriously: What could be done that would be equitable, helping the actual business the city wanted to support without promoting the ones in which it has no interest?
(Second aside: The city could have a reasonable construction and building code that is easy to understand and apply. This would be a plus, regardless of the specific topic, for almost any city-related issue. The codes are a contradictory mess, an equal-opportunity obstacle that costs any who deal with it time, money, patience, and sanity.)
The problem is us, not just developers, not just chains, not just politicians. We who shop at chains rather than searching out local businesses. We who check out merchandise at local shops and then order online. We who would race into a Borders Downtown to buy a CD or a book because parking might be easier rather than paying the same price at a locally owned store (Borders does not discount most of its wares, so don't use price as an excuse). We who go to the discount store because goods are cheaper, rather than shopping locally, and then, on the way home, stop to sign a petition against the same international sweatshop labor we've just helped to reinforce.
Nothing about economics is simple, unfortunately. A working-class family, given the opportunity to substantially save on clothing, is going to take it. The concept that they might be driving the very jobs they currently work at overseas fades against the daily reality of balancing the budget. In general, that family budget often trumps more idealistic concerns. Chains are spreading, again not by developer effort nor government fiat, but because consumers are attracted to them for any number of reasons.
Over the years, I have lived in a lot of small towns. Getting me going on how destructive Wal-Marts are to local economies, driving the small mom-and-pop operations out of business, is easy. More reluctantly, I would note the lack of choices in goods available. Buying an auto part in small-town South Carolina three decades ago meant driving several towns over, to the Sears Catalog Store. Ordering from the catalog. Waiting for the part. After getting the part, if it wasn't right, correcting the situation took days. Wal-Marts devastated local business not simply because of discounts but because of the amazing range of choices. Austin, of course, isn't a small town, and here local businesses almost always offer a broader number of choices and/or more targeted ones.
Here's my usual mess of ideas that seems to say a lot but probably adds up to nothing. What am I getting at (I'm asking me, the writer, more than you, the reader)? I'm just trying to get at the complexity of issues involving economic choices, the lack of a clear right or wrong. Sometimes, it's a little easier than that. You support Austin because of its atmosphere and community. Shop locally, eat out at local restaurants, spend money that will circulate in our community. I've been focused on two local businesses, but take them as representative of hundreds. For example, I'd offer a list of the large number of excellent local music retailers besides Waterloo, except I'm bound to miss a couple, justifiably pissing them off. So I've rambled; this affects your life, and you need to think about it. Every day, you vote on these issues with your wallet, by where and what you purchase. The consequences of those mundane decisions conspire to affect the life of the city and its future.
The Creating a Liveable 6th and Lamar: Community Forum will focus on that particular situation but will undoubtedly discuss some of the overall issues in the process, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 5:30-7:30pm, at La Zona Rosa, 612 W. Fourth. If you care about this city, here is an opportunity to both contribute your ideas and listen to others'.
I had so many topics I wanted to tackle this week, but the forum seems so important.