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Bennington vote confirms need for statewide cap

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The news that Bennington residents rejected a town-initiated size cap on big-box retail stores reinforces the notion that the proposed state regulation on this issue should incorporate provisions to allow an appropriate measure of local control. Bennington’s vote does not, however, cast any doubt on the wisdom of a statewide initiative.

For readers not abreast of the news in Bennington, residents there rejected a proposed bylaw to cap any single big-box retail store at 75,000 square feet.  That measure was defeated 2,189 to 1,724, with a respectable turnout  of 40 percent for a single-issue vote. The measure became a referendum on Wal-Mart, which had stated its intention to expand its existing store there from 50,000 square feet to 112,000 square feet. In a well-financed advertising campaign, Wal-Mart developer Jonathan Levy, of Ohio-based Redstone Investments, outspent proponents for the selectboard’s bylaw by a 3-1 margin.

The vote and Wal-Mart’s (via the developer) outsized spending on the campaign, not to mention engaging its employees to send customers to the polls, elicited this curious response from Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans: “I’m sure there are existing stores in Bennington that will no longer be in business in three to five years … My hat’s off to Wal-Mart and the developer. It shows that the company will spend whatever it takes to locate a store where it wants to locate a store.�

It’s a backhanded compliment, of course. Illuzzi was admiring the ruthlessness of the world’s largest retail corporation to get what it wants. But in tipping his hat, Illuzzi also suggests that all is fair in love and war, and that it doesn’t matter if the retail giant uses its wealth to outspend opponents; it doesn’t matter if the “facts� Wal-Mart claims are contested as so much self-serving nonsense put out by a highly paid public relations department; it doesn’t matter if the effect on Bennington’s downtown is disastrous; it doesn’t matter if the town is poorer for the decision a decade from now.

But it does matter, and Sen. Illuzzi knows it. That’s why he’s co-sponsoring a bill that would institute a statewide cap on big-box retail stores at 50,000 square feet, with a provision to increase the cap to 75,000 square feet if a town’s residents agree.

What makes that statewide cap doubly important is precisely because Wal-Mart and the mega-developers who handle such projects are ruthless. Their concerns do not represent the best long-term interest of the Vermont communities they would infiltrate. They are interested in growing sales; making a return on investment; and if that means running other stores out of business and dominating a market with a single mega-store, so be it.

That’s Darwinian capitalism, raw as it comes. And until towns change the rules, we all have to exist in a marketplace in which the biggest, the meanest and the wealthiest rule the roost.

If Vermonters want to take their hats off to that concept, go right ahead.

But there is a more enlightened approach.

Just as the federal government has long understood that it must bust up industrial enterprises that get so big they threaten the national interest (the robber barons of each respective era), towns and states must also realize that some of the largest retail conglomerates pose such an overwhelming size advantage that their mere presence drastically changes a market. And when one big-box store locates in a community, others often follow — multiplying the problem many times over.

A community’s, and a state’s, one defense is to change the rules to level the playing field for local, independently owned businesses. Voters have the right and the power to change those rules, and it is up to the elected officials of the towns and state to put such options before them.

The proposed statewide cap on retail space, if structured properly, could level the playing field for Vermont’s independent retailers while still allowing for local control. Ideally, what the state would hope to prevent is allowing a big-box retailer to undermine the efforts of one community by slipping into another town a few miles away. That could be accomplished with a provision that requires the big-box developer to first ask the prospective community if their presence would be accepted before any real estate deals were made or permits sought. Just the asking would allow area communities to prepare arguments for or against the request with ample time — and not, as it is today, force opponents to argue that a permit that’s already been filed must be denied.

 In allowing such local control, the fear is that Wal-Mart could win many of those battles with outsized spending on advertising campaigns that spread false information, and by appealing to the public’s baser, short-term instincts. For that reason, requiring a supermajority to refute the statewide cap has some merit — though it runs counter to the premise of majority rule and that has its own set of drawbacks.

Nonetheless, a statewide cap — even with conditions attached — is still better than doing nothing and watching Vermont towns be over-run by a corporate giant whose modus operandi is to divide and conquer, turn neighbor against neighbor as they did in Bennington,  and dominate each market while driving local stores out of business.  

The challenge facing Sen. Illuzzi and others in the Legislature is to devise a law that strikes the right balance  in the fight to preserve Vermont’s uniqueness, without denying larger communities the right of self-determination. The worst thing to do would be to walk away from the battle. It took courage to wage this fight, let’s find a way to make it work.

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