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TOWN CRIER: Future starts by saying 'no' to Wal-Mart
†I'm just back in Moscow after a whirlwind cross-country road trip in a U-Haul truck, something I haven't done since 1982 when my father died unexpectedly and his house had to be cleaned out and sold. After 2,500 miles of four-lane highways, sprawling subdivisions and big-box stores beckoning with their familiar neon come-on at the edge of every town, it felt great to be back in Moscow with all its homegrown quirks. We're not free of the big-box presence here, but we haven't handed over the keys yet.
†As much as we might wish it were so, we are not unsullied by market forces that would steal the good character of our community and replace it with a clone of a thousand other towns smothered in the neon big- box discounted culture. We lost our claim to virginity when previous city councils and mayors approved rezones that have sprawled Moscow in all directions and allowed big-box stores to spring up on our western edge. In their devotion to mission, state highway engineers have been hard at work building four-lane highways toward Moscow to make it ever easier for discount goods to fill those stores.
†In the name of progress and growth, developers have built row after row of subdivisions. From the cul-de-sacs to the parking lots, from the shopping carts to the Dumpsters, they have been chipping away at the character of our town.
†There are many arguments to be made about the effect of chain stores on communities. We've heard them made well and forcefully, both pro and con, during the fight over whether there should be a Wal-Mart in Pullman: Low-wage versus living-wage jobs; health benefits (or lack thereof); property tax base effects; infrastructure needs; economic growth forecasts; environmental impacts and more. Every one of these issues is real and each is worth debate. But by their nature, I believe they are secondary to the question we should be discussing and deciding first: do we want to allow the homogenizing presence of Wal-Mart clones and their pasteurized ilk to decide for us what our community should look like?
†I say no. Not here. Not on our watch. Let's take the long view in which communities that refuse to be played as cogs in the lowest common denominator machine become the oasis of creativity and sanity in a world gone to a uniform shade of beige vinyl. Let's support a local economy that builds on what distinguishes us from everyone else. Let's keep building a community that will have the world coming to us to remember what creativity means.
†The difficult part is we have limited tools to work with when it comes to how we utilize our land and water resources. By law, the land-use process has two significant parts: the primary planning stage and the secondary zoning stage. Planning is where we decide if certain types of uses are allowed at all or conditionally. Zoning is where we decide what physical locations are suitable for allowed uses. If big box development is determined by zoning, we're in trouble as the intent of the codes as currently written is to accommodate big boxes in motor business zones. Going to the "Yes, but ? " stage, as is the essence of a conditional-use permit, is a lot like being a little bit pregnant. The outcome is certain.
†The development of big boxes on our west edge during the past 25 years already has taken a heavy toll on local businesses. When Ernst Hardware came in as our first big box (now itself a victim of other big- box chains), three locally owned downtown hardware stores went out of business. When Office Depot and Staples came in, we lost our downtown stationery store. We used to have downtown Sears, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward stores. The beginning point for all these changes was a rezone request.
†Let's not compound the errors of the past. The City Council can use its authority to just say "no" to additional motor business rezones until the community has a full chance to debate how we want Moscow to look in the future. Wait - I think that already occurred in the recent city election. It's probably no coincidence that the latest rezone request for a Wal-Mart Supercenter arrived the day after the election and before the new council and mayor are seated.
†We can say "yes" to a vibrant future for Moscow. It starts with saying "no" to Wal-Mart.
†* Mark Solomon observes the Palouse from his homestead on top of Moscow Mountain. Town Crier is a weekly series of columns contributed by 13 local writers. The Town Crier columns run on Wednesday.
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