City efforts to lure Walmart indicate misplaced priorities
Originally published on February 23, 2013 in SRQ Daily
Debates over Sarasota’s economic future are in full swing. In the City, land-use controversies continue, and City Commission candidates debate our future. In the County, plans to revisit and revise the 2050 Comprehensive Land Use Plan are underway, potentially undermining safeguards against sprawl. Meanwhile, The Atlantic recently revealed North Port/Bradenton/Sarasota as the worst metropolitan area in the United States for young, college-educated women to meet young, college-educated men. For the under-35-and-single set, college-educated women in Sarasota outnumber college-educated men by 82 percent. The constant need for citizens to defend sound land-use and zoning, along with our failure to fully develop the talents of our young people, contribute to our economic malaise.
A current city debate concerns whether a proposed Walmart 24-hour “Supercenter” can be built alongside a residential neighborhood. Zoning problems that should have been recognized early were either missed or ignored. City residents are also flummoxed over a Commission decision to sell park land at Beneva and Fruitville for $1.5 million. The decision was made without consulting the community or City Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, without a request for proposals and after refusing a higher $3-milliondollar offer. Why, in the name of economic development, is local government bending or ignoring zoning to accommodate Walmart and orchestrating a significant land sale while bypassing community input and competitive bidding? Even more concerning, why are community leaders touting Walmart as a job creator?
Studies of local labor markets indicate Walmart puts surrounding retailers out of business and drains dollars from local economies. After a single Walmart opened in Chicago in September 2006, 82 of the 306 small businesses in the surrounding neighborhood had gone out of business by March 2008. Chain stores send a good portion of revenue out of the community. One study estimates for every $100 spent in locally owned businesses, $68 stays in the local economy while chain stores only leave $43 to re-circulate locally. Another study of local labor markets shows Walmart openings kill three local jobs for every two they create by reducing retail employment by an average of 2.7 percent. Is this the best we can do? Walmart as a “job creator”?
All of this highlights our local government’s poor track record of incorporating reliable, independent data into economic planning and patiently executing a disciplined plan. Witness the $650,000 of public funds given to Sanborn Studios, a flash-in-the-pan glamour project promising 117 jobs and a $30-million corporate budge —promises which never materialized. Recall local government efforts to thwart a referendum on stadium spending and ignore independent data proving public dollars for professional sports fails to yield promised returns.
Wise economic development—maximizing employment and opportunity in our urban cores, preserving open space, minimizing undisciplined sprawl—requires community engagement and oversight. Even more critical: partnering with our local universities and schools to maximize college graduation rates for our young people, especially our talented young men whose educational and professional potentials aren’t being realized. Realizing these goals would create a sound economic platform for our community. Disciplined community planning and our universities hold answers to what ails us. A new Walmart is a sideshow.