Stop the Presses:

Hornes of a Dilemma

 

by Mike Kroll

 

Readers of recent editorials in the Register-Mail may be beginning to wonder what Don Cooper knows that the rest of us don't. Why has the rabidly free-market conservative publisher suddenly taken up full-scale opposition to a proposed retail development by Horne Properties of Knoxville, Tennessee that will include a Menards and a Wal-Mart Supercenter among other smaller retailers and restaurants?

Historically, Cooper has supported nearly every initiative of Galesburg's city administration yet here he is instigating a public outrage against exactly the kind of business development he and his newspaper would typically be touting loudly. Could it be that Cooper is one of the many who decry Wal-Mart's coercive labor practices, predatory competitiveness or merciless bullying of suppliers to meet their purchase price? Perhaps Cooper doesn't approve of Wal-Mart's role in routing domestic manufacturers to Mexico, China or eastern Europe to achieve the lowest cost, always? Such positions are counter to Cooper's oft-demonstrated world view supporting unencumbered Capitalism. This would pose a conundrum were Cooper's selfish motives and veiled bigotry not so transparent.

On Sunday Cooper wrote an editorial (“City officials quick to dump comprehensive plan for developer“) complaining that the recently proposed retail development northeast of the intersection of Carl Sandburg Drive and Seminary Street doesn't fit with the zoning plan proposed in the last comprehensive plan. “The City-County Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 1999, cost more than $100,000 - about $40,000 per pound - to produce ...calls for commercial development along U.S. 34 and along Seminary Street, south of the interchange. However, the comprehensive plan does provide a different approach to development on the south end of the property along Carl Sandburg Drive. ...The plan, written when there wasn't a developer wanting to make a deal, provides a common-sense approach that protects all property values.”

On Monday Cooper followed this with another editorial (“City being 'sold' on retail center without knowing what it's buying”) in which he pointedly wondered about why Horne Properties would leave most of the tenants unlabeled excepting a theater in the southeast corner of the development. “That's a specific kind of business, compared to the other more generic monikers used for the other buildings. The fact of the matter is there's no commitment from a theater operator to build there. It is a fabrication, which the developer admits. ...We can only assume that the term 'theater' was used as a means to sell the project. It could just as well be 'night club' or 'bowling alley.' Of course, those don't have quite the appeal as 'theater,' do they?”

Gee Don, why didn't you just suggest a potential strip club or massage parlor while you were fear mongering? Cooper continued his call for protective zoning through buffering. Sunday  he wrote,”[T]he [comprehensive] plan calls for offices, then apartments and then duplexes (or four-plexes). The offices and multi-family housing would be a buffer between the commercial area and the Seminary Village retirement community, Hawthorne Center and the adjacent city park. The comprehensive plan provides a similar buffer on the west side of Seminary Street. It shows offices between the thoroughfare and the residential area to the west. Offices also are suggested for the southwest corner of Seminary Street and Carl Sandburg Drive. These would buffer the Circle Drive neighborhood and encourage residential development north of it. What will happen to the value of the homes on Montague Drive or Circle Drive if North Seminary Street is expanded to five lanes and nearby property is developed into convenience stores and fast-food restaurants?”

 Cooper  wrote Monday, “While Patterson is reluctant to talk about what specific stores ARE committed, he throws out a lot of names for businesses that COULD be there, such as 'high-quality' sit-down restaurants such as Chili's, Olive Garden or Bennigan's. Those certainly sound better as potential tenants of the 'outparcels' than fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. ...Such comments are designed to project an image for the project quite the opposite of 'Wal-Mart Supercenter.' That's because Wal-Mart often becomes a lighting rod for residents in communities who see the giant retailer replacing smaller businesses. The developer wants to quell that opposition.”

And we can confirm that some Galesburg residents have already begun efforts to fight the Wal-Mart Supercenter although their motives are not the focus of this column. It seems likely that the nearby location of Cooper's own home on the southeast corner of Carl Sandburg Drive and Broad Street (about 3/8 mile from the proposed development) should tell you what property value he is most concerned about. However, the point is that exactly what mix of retailers Horne Properties brings into their development is beyond the scope of zoning or regulation by the city. Zoning only categorizes property uses and doesn't prescribe or proscribe specific brands or targeted patrons.

Cooper and others in this town may not want to encourage more of 'the kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart' but that's neither their call nor an acceptible attitude. That is economic bigotry pure and simple and we shouldn't permit such behavior anymore than we would racism. It is the same kind of behavior that blocked Parkway Estates from the original planned location behind Hy-Vee and Wal-Mart (and slightly closer to Don's house). Cooper and his newspaper editorialized against that development as well, putatively for fear of flooding. That fear quickly subsided when Parkway Estates was moved to its present location on Carl Sandburg Drive and curiously did not reappear when the current non-subsidized apartment development was proposed and built in exactly the same location. Hmmmmm, does anyone else detect a pattern?

It is a simple fact that this location is a natural for a project such as that proposed by Horne Properties. As  consumers we should welcome the additional shopping choices. It is not (or at least should not be) the role of local government to choose economic winners or losers among competing retailers. Shoppers do that with their feet and wallets. The city can and should ensure that Horne Properties and its tenants are responsible corporate citizens, build and operate safe and attractive stores and conform to generally accepted and legally instituted building codes and zoning restrictions. It is imperative that the city make sure Horne Properties and it tenants absorb the burden of any necessary infrastructure improvements rather than taxpayers and we should not offer any special economic incentives (such as was done for the Sandburg Mall). So far Horne has given every indication that it will be a good corporate citizen and apparently has asked for no incentives.

This new retail development will generate additional property and sales tax dollars and it will result in a number of additional local jobs. These are both good things. It will also cost this community as well in terms of likely killing the North Henderson Street Econofoods in addition to some other small local businesses and it will no doubt elicit the final gasps from the already dying Sandburg Mall. In fact, I strongly suspect that many of the existing tenants of that depressing shopping experience are already being courted by Horne. Osco Drug, Payless Shoes, Holmes Shoes, and even the newly merged Sears/K-Mart immediately come to mind as potential Horne tenants. And please don't blame the eventual death of the Sandburg Mall on Horne, it has been lingering on life support for a while already.

The new development will also add additional empty stores along Henderson Street (most notably the current Wal-Mart that will deteriorate into an eyesore unless it's redevelopment is part of the package). Galesburg had already lost ShopKo years ago and B&G Foods more recently, this weakness in the local retail market is why so many people were surprised by bullishness of Horne Properties. The new development will be a double edged sword. On the one hand a shiny new commercial development expanding consumer options adds to quality of life while on the other hand empty store fronts and a dying Mall may leave residents and out of town shoppers alike with a negative economic picture of Galesburg. This town is already suffering from unrealistically LOW expectations of our future and therefore we must take pains to ameliorate a plague of empty storefronts.

While new jobs will be created it is unlikely to be a big net job gain and most of those jobs created will be part time, without benefits and well below a living wage. The new development will not replace the loss of Maytag or Butler and it would ridiculous to expect that. As I have noted before, not all jobs are equivalent. Even a bevy of $7-9/hr jobs cannot be considered as economic development but additional jobs are welcome nonetheless. It is even possible that the presence of the new development will be seen as a plus for our community by prospective new businesses.

We need to expand our considerations for necessary infrastructure improvements and plan for the broader traffic implications of this development. One thing our city officials must do immediately is to plan for the eastward extension of Carl Sandburg Drive to Farnham. This is a project that should have been in process long ago but is now imperative given the impact this development will have on traffic on North Seminary Street. The stated expectation by Horne itself is that 60-75 percent of the patrons of this new retail development will come from Galesburg residents rather than depending upon regional sales. Many if not most Galesburg shoppers will approach via Seminary Street, I would guess more than via Carl Sandburg Drive.

This will change the entire character of Seminary Street and traffic will increase further if and when a bridge is constructed over the Santa Fe tracks that currently intersect Seminary Street immediately north of downtown. Traffic along Fremont Street will also increase as a function of this development; of particular concern should be Fremont Street traffic east of Seminary Street. Yet no discussions have been held publicly about planning for these broader impacts or the cost associated with them. The extension of Carl Sandburg Drive to Farnham would help reduce traffic on Seminary Street but would also require construction of a track separation immediately east of the new development. The cost of this separation is why Carl Sandburg Drive has languished in its present state. Whether we raise the street or the train tracks (and the later seems very feasible to me) the time to begin this project is now and at least part of the funding should be the responsibility of the Horne Properties.

The longterm impact of this development on Galesburg is a yet to be answered question but as the type of person that shops at Wal-Mart and the like I already know there's no room in my hometown for any form of bigotry.