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Big boxes: Good or bad for local economies?

Rob Ryan
Silverthorne, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail Daily
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For many years, national retailers have said their “big-box” stores bring in jobs and tax revenue. On Monday in Silverthorne, author Stacy Mitchell will make the case that such retailers haven’t lived up to their promises, and in some cases may actually hurt local economies.

“When it comes to the economic promise of big retailers … they haven’t really delivered,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of the book “Big-Box Swindle,” will speak at the Silverthorne Pavilion Monday at 7 p.m.. The presentation is being put on by the Summit Independent Business Alliance, High Country Conservation Center and Our Future Summit.

“I think we’re looking for some new ideas and some insight into how to support the local business community,” Howard Hallman, president of Our Future Summit and one of the events moderators, said. “We’re not trying to promote a particular point of view, we’re trying to increase awareness and constructive dialogue.”

Mitchell said she’s going to be talking about many of the “hidden costs” of chain retailers and what communities can do to support local business.

“As consumers, we tend to focus on price,” Mitchell said. “What I think we’re missing is that stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target have lowered incomes more than they’ve lowered prices.”

By way of example, Mitchell said “tens of thousands” of small business owners and 3 million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the U.S. since 1990.

“Many of (the lost jobs) can be traced to pressure from big retailers,” she said. “We’ve had a shrinking middle class for the last 15 years.”

Mitchell added that big-box stores can hurt communities because money spent at the store doesn’t necessarily feed into the local economy. She said a recent study in Chicago showed that $100 spent at a local business created $68 worth of local economic activity, while $100 spent at a national chain yielded only $43.

Mitchell also said there are benefits to supporting local business that go beyond simple economics.

“People involved in the local business community go to more city council meetings, school board meetings, they even vote more,” she said. “As we give up local businesses, we give up that sense of community and all the beneficial things that it brings.”

Carly Wier of High Country Conservation Center in Frisco echoed Mitchell’s remarks, saying local businesses are an important part of maintaining a healthy environment.

“There are so many layers that go into a sustainable community,” Wier said. “Businesses have a huge impact on our environment.”

Mitchell has a personal stake in seeing local businesses thrive. During the recession of the late 1980s, Mitchell said she watched the local business district in her hometown of Portland, Maine, get “decimated” by a retail shopping center. She said there were times when 50 percent of the buildings in the district were vacant.

Mitchell said there is a growing trend among cities nationwide to support local business. She said there are independent business alliances in 130 cities now, collectively representing around 30,000 business owners. She also said the numbers of independent bookstores, hardware stores and farmers markets have gone up astronomically over the past few years.

“Consumers are interested in local business and the unique knowledge local business owners have,” she said.


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