Naked City

Council OKs Big-Box Study

The City Council last week committed $45,000 to study the local impact of national big-box retail chains in Austin, with Mayor Will Wynn casting the lone "no" vote.

Economist Jon Hockenyos and his firm, Texas Perspectives, will team with Scott Polikov of Gateway Planning Group to examine seven different aspects of the big-box invasion: recent economic and industry trends; the state of the Austin retail economy; studies of big-box impact in similar cities; differences in consumer prices between national, regional, and local merchants operating in Austin; impacts of big boxes on public safety, transportation, and the environment; the influence on local wages, charitable contributions, and business-to-business spending; and ramifications for land use and growth management.

An informal stakeholders committee is also being assembled to serve in an advisory role to the consultants and the city. Liveable City board Chair Robin Rather, who is helping to organize that latter group with neighborhood leader Susan Moffat (wife of Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro), said the stakeholders would represent labor, neighborhood, environmental, and development interests, as well as the Austin Independent Business Alliance and the various Chambers of Commerce.

Wynn said that while he appreciated the benefits of studying environmental and neighborhood design issues in relation to big boxes, he could not justify spending tax dollars "analyzing retail trends in modern American society." Council Member Daryl Slusher, a sponsor of the study, countered that citizens are concerned about the economic impact for a number of reasons, citing the potential drain on local businesses as well as the public health care system, since many low-wage retail workers are without health insurance.

Rather, who was part of a coalition that pushed for the analysis based on similar studies from other communities, said she was perplexed by the mayor's vote. "Some of us are a little taken aback that the mayor seemed to not 'get' the economic implications of big-box trends," she said. "But perhaps he has not had time to read [various news reports] that clearly show that there is more than just an environmental impact. It's really about jobs and the economy as much as anything else. We are hoping that the study will show what is, and is not, true here in Central Texas compared to the rest of the country."

The study gained the council's approval on a 5-1 vote, with Wynn opposed, and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman off the dais.

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big box, Will Wynn, Robin Rather, Susan Moffat, Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, Wal-Mart, John Hockenyos, Texas Perspectives, Scott Polikov, Gateway Planning Group

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