Editorial: Big box stores, small towns and the lessons learned

At issue with the five-year update of Middlebury’s town plan is a crucial question: should the town keep a cap limiting retail stores to 50,000 square feet.
The measure has been part of the town plan for several years now, and was initially adopted to prevent the location of a Wal-Mart, or any other big-box store, to locate on the town’s outskirts or become the anchor of another strip-type mall on the town’s periphery. If past surveys are an accurate reflection of the public mood, most residents do not want the town to become a haven for big box stores.
And the problem with changing the town plan to allow for such a prospect is that — just like the potato chip — you can’t have just one. If you drop the language to cap retail stores at 50,000 and three big box stores file applications to build, what’s the town’s argument? With what criteria do you say, yes to you, but no to you other guys?
You don’t. And that is how Wal-Mart attracts Home Depot, Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, or a K-Mart or JC Penney. We have nothing against these stores, and there is some credence to the argument that one big department store, a K-Mart or Wal-Mart, might serve as a magnet to the Middlebury market. We even acknowledge that while one big-box store would inevitably put two or three local businesses on the ropes, the net gain in business to the town might prove beneficial.
But there is no doubt that such direct competition makes it difficult for locally owned stores to survive or that it would ultimately change the local aesthetic and culture. The sheer size of these modern behemoths tell the story: most want to build 120,000- to 150,000-square-foot-buildings. Just one such retail store would offer more retail space and merchandise than the core downtown area that encompasses Merchants Row and Main Street. Add two or three big box stores on the outskirts of town, and you’d have massive flight from downtown retailers.
But even if town planners could keep the location of these big box stores somehow relegated to the downtown area — with the well-intended thought that the increased traffic would spill over to the locally owned businesses — the effect is likely to be negative. Ticonderoga is a good example. The Wal-Mart there is located just a few blocks off the town center, in site of Main Street and the core downtown, which is, predictably, devastated. So many empty buildings fill its downtown that it appears to be a ghost town — except, the nearby Wal-Mart is hopping.
The lesson learned is now part of Americana: big box stores that offer one-stop shopping and low prices are not compatible with small, vibrant downtowns filled with locally owned stores. You get one or the other, but if the town is small to mid-size, as Middlebury is, you don’t get both. And it is not even a question: the reality is seen in devastated downtowns throughout the country. Those that have done it best are the towns considerably larger than Middlebury — Burlington has managed to have both, though Rutland hasn’t.
Before the town selectboard veers down this path too far, they should base their calculations on the facts at hand, not on the promise that they can somehow do what thousands of other communities have tried to do — and failed.
Angelo S. Lynn

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