Hot off the cyber-press:
Oliver's Market Manager Tom Scott and I co-authored a new commentary, "Five Steps Local Government Can Take to Help Local Economies Thrive."
Hint: what's good for Main Street is not the same as what's good for Wal-Mart!
Feedback welcome here on Wacco...Thanks!
You can link on the title above, or I am pasting the entire article here....
Five Steps Local Government Can Take to Help Local Economies Thrive
Author: Tom Scott & Jonathan Greenberg
April, 2013 Issue
Our great nation was founded on the principle of what Abraham Lincoln called, “Government by the people, for the people, of the people.”
To us, local city government for the people, means a responsive government that represents the citizens who pay public salaries and comprise local communities and businesses. In addition to providing adequate and professional protective and administrative services, this means implementing public policy that lets the local economy thrive.
The only constant in business is change, and how local economies thrive has changed. What’s good for Wall Street and the Walmarts of the world has very little to do with what’s good for small business on Main Street. One study after another has proven that locally owned businesses enrich our economies with a “multiplier” effect, and that national chain stores suck money out. An April 2011 study by Sonoma State University’s School of Business and Economics concluded that every $100 spent on locally produced goods at Oliver's Markets produced $121 in local economic activity, while the same $100 spent on national branded goods from national chain supermarkets returned just $60 to the community.
Here are our top recommendations for ordinances and policy shifts that responsive local governments in the North Bay could implement to help local economies thrive.
Define what constitutes “local” at markets. Consumers in Northern California want to support local farms and food products. We’re willing to pay extra because local food is fresher, supports local farms or producers and (for some of us) it burns less gas to get to the store. Oliver’s Market defines “local” as from Sonoma County. Shoppers love its focus on local foods. Oliver’s customers spend their dollars accordingly. Sonoma County products sourced from 305 vendors comprise 27 percent of Oliver's sales, despite representing only 10 percent of products on the shelves.
National chain stores like Safeway and even Whole Foods take advantage of the goodwill that many of us attach to the term “local.” Safeway defines and promotes “local” as being from anywhere in California, which could mean oranges trucked hundreds of miles across the state. In a sense, it’s misappropriating the term—and the dollars of those of us thinking we’re supporting area farms.
Our city councils can’t force businesses to buy from our local farms, but they can pass ordinances regulating signage in all stores in city limits. If the city of Sonoma wants to define “local” as Sonoma and Marin counties, for instance, it can pass an ordinance saying that the signage of stores within the city limits can only use the term “local” when a product is from these areas—and attach fines to stores that misuse the term.
No preferential treatment for national retailers. When big box stores and mega-developers come to town, too many city governments—and especially planning departments—roll out the red carpet and create special incentives to play by a single set of rules instead of making special zoning areas for national stores that are likely to take business away from local retailers (who’ve played by the rules for years). This needs to stop. Instead, we should hold these big box players accountable to projects that fit our planning and design criteria, instead of creating development advantages that assist national retailers in taking business away from local retailers.
In June 2012, the Santa Rosa City Council amended its zoning rules to allow small grocery stores (less than 20,000 square feet) as a permitted use in any general commercial district. Chain grocers such as Fresh and Easy, Trader Joe’s and Sprouts can operate in a 20,000-square footprint. As a permitted use, there’s no environmental review for traffic or noise, no limit regarding saturation or proximity to existing stores, no public notice or opportunity to appeal or protest.
As an economic development project of the council, its stated intent was to create jobs, increase the city’s tax base and preempt Santa Rosa shoppers from traveling to other communities to buy their food. But building more grocery stores can only cannibalize sales at existing stores, as people don’t eat more when you build more grocery stores. And people from other communities come to Santa Rosa to buy their groceries, not the other way around. This measure was driven by developers representing chain store interests, and the local markets will be the worse for it.
Special treatment for local business belongs in a city’s planning toolset. It’s perfectly legal for city officials to consider various factors when responding to requests for zoning variances. We elect our council members to be responsive to the economic and social needs of our community—not to assure the Walmarts of the world that their armies of lawyers and lobbyists will be treated the same as local, small businesses. If a city desires a specific outcome, like preserving local jobs or encouraging local ownership, our elected officials have every right to reserve the “carrot” of a zoning variance to those new projects that deliver these outcomes.
For instance, many of the new public mini-parks in New York City were funded through zoning variances, letting buildings go a little higher than they’d have been allowed under existing air rights regulations. Over the past few decades, the city traded air space for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of public space on the ground, typically to the delight of communities.
A compelling example of local officials failing to use their variance granting powers to help the local economy was Sebastopol’s experience with Amy’s Kitchen during the summer of 2011. Petaluma-based Amy’s, one of the largest employers in Sonoma County, selected the Pasta Bella site at 796 Gravenstein Highway as the launch site for its pilot healthy fast food restaurant. Former Planning Commissioner Bob Green recently explained that although he felt “everybody in Sebastopol would love to have” the nation’s first organic Amy’s fast food restaurant, he believed he had no choice but to turn down the application because of a 1990’s general plan ban on restaurant drive-throughs. Green reflected that to approve Amy’s “wouldn’t really be fair” to the McDonald’s franchises of the world.
In other words, he felt bound to not consider public interest economic considerations like local ownership, living wages and benefits, sales tax generation, the fact that this drive-through would scarcely impact traffic because it was in the outskirts of town, and the public health advantages of organic food. Responsive government would have considered these factors and granted a variance to Amy’s. Instead, Amy’s was turned away and the site is now vacant.
Articulate local business policy objectives in advance. Our local governments would do well to deliberate which considerations they and the voters feel are important in helping local economies thrive, and then to articulate them publicly. Having an articulated city policy would’ve helped in the Amy’s case—and it would provide a critically missing yardstick to assessing new development.
City governments could borrow from the new practice of creating community impact reports, and create community economic impact reports for major new projects seeking approvals.
For example, when the big box guys pitch their projects, they always say they’ll create jobs. But we know those jobs usually replace better jobs that already exist. They say they’ll bring lower prices, but we know those prices are subsidized by local governments that are often forced to provide the health and human services that existing employers already provide. The big box lobbyists say they give back to those communities where they have stores, but we know home town retailers are far more generous. They say they’ll support other local businesses, but we know that, as national actors, “local” means something far broader to them than what it means to us.
Our cities could create community economic impact reports using a point structure that would measure the positive and negative impacts of relative projects. Points could be given or taken on the basis of:
• Local congruency—like local ownership and formats that appeal to specific local interests (Amy’s vs. Taco Bell);
• Net local payroll change;
• Health insurance provided, living wages and other benefits;
• Net local economic activity generated;
• Diversity in retail offering;
• History of (or contractual commitment to) local philanthropy;
• Energy and water sustainability; and
• Design integration into a city’s plan and objectives.
Downsize city planning departments. For years, California earmarked more than $5 billion annually for hundreds of municipal redevelopment agencies statewide. For Sonoma County’s small cities, these funds helped pay for professionally staffed planning departments and city administrations. City staff acted with a pro-large-development bias, because that’s where their money—and developer fees—came from.
This development gravy train came to a screeching halt last year. That’s one reason cities like Cotati and Sebastopol recently added a half-cent to their sales taxes. In 2012 to 2013, Cotati, which until last year received about $550,000 for staffing annually from state redevelopment funds, is spending $507,000 on community development, for staff and consultants, from its general funds. That’s more than is budgeted for streets and park maintenance combined.
In Sebastopol, well over half of the $290,000 cost of the city’s planning department came from state redevelopment funds. Although there are no planned new projects, Sebastopol’s planning director, who’s outraged many citizens by acting as a cheerleader for the unpopular CVS development at the city’s traffic choke point, has said a general plan revision will cost another $200,000 (in addition to his own compensation, with benefits, of some $150,000).
City council members should be reviewing the budgets of our oversized planning departments with new scrutiny this year.
Reorienting the role of city planning. To help local economies thrive, city governments should also review and reorient the core purpose of their planning and legal departments. For decades, Sonoma’s cities have used these departments as facilitators to spend state money annexing and/or developing land for expansion. Their orientation has been to help developers win their way through the often untidy process of public review and local ordinances. Planning directors have pushed projects through despite public opposition and often objections from elected officials.
Development that benefits local economies most should be the new orientation of our planning departments—and of those city employees who want to keep their well-paying jobs. Despite two years of contentious hearings and negotiations with the developer for the CVS project, Sebastopol’s city council never received any guidance from its planning director about the impact the project would have on the local economy or sales tax revenues. The traffic report done for the project was deeply flawed and few believed its conclusion that 2,000 new car trips per day and a drive-through window near the most dangerous intersection in West County wouldn’t have a significant impact on traffic.
City planning departments should focus on providing objective expert advice and analysis to our elected officials on how developments impact our local economies. And, using locally articulated criteria, which projects best achieve our shared objectives of helping our local economies thrive.
Jonathan Greenberg, an investigative journalist, author and new media executive, runs Sebastopol-based Progressive Source Communications, a public interest digital marketing company. He was also the creator of Gist.com, BeYourGovernment.org, OccupyGovernment.org, KnowGMO.org, TV1.com and ProgressiveSebastopol.com.
Tom Scott is vice president and general manager for Oliver’s Markets, which locally owns and operates three supermarkets in Sonoma County. A 27-year resident of Sonoma County, Tom received his MBA from Sonoma State University in 2005. He sits on the boards of the Sonoma County GoLocal Cooperative and the Sonoma County Harvest Fair.