Tuesday, June 21, 2005

SIEDC's Own Report Contradicts Its Love for Wal-Mart

The Staten Island Economic Development Corporation (SIEDC) came out with a report today that underscores the biggest impediments to business development on the Island:

The Staten Island Economic Development Corporation's blueprint for the future reveals what residents have known for years: The borough is choking on traffic and the retail industry is suffering because of the sales tax.
We couldn’t agree more with the SIEDC and believe that their desire to keep business on the island is commendable:

Strategies include a collaborative effort to permanently exempt clothing and footwear from the sales tax; creation of more business districts; zoning changes to include more mixed-use buildings, and tax incentives for both new and existing businesses.

"We have to make sure that Staten Island is the first choice of consumers," said Commerce Bank's Fred Graziano, who chaired the retail committee.
Considering this report, we don’t understand SIEDC’s unequivocal support for Wal-Mart coming to Staten Island. We even spoke with an official from that office a number of weeks ago who claimed that Wal-Mart would not harm small business (it would only affect bigger retailers like Target, he said) and that it would be an overall boon to the SI economy by creating jobs and keeping tax dollars in the borough.

Well, maybe this official needs to read his own agency’s materials a little more closely. If, as SIEDC points out, traffic is a obstacle to Island shopping than how is adding a Wal-Mart, with its attendant 50,000 automobile trips a week, going to improve the retail situation? The mega-retailer will only make it harder for people to get around, decreasing the likelihood that customers will frequent a number of local stores.

If the SIEDC believes more mixed-used developments, with office space, park land and smaller retail, is needed how does a 200,000 sq.ft. Wal-Mart make sense? As the residents of Staten Island, especially on the South Shore, will tell you they need offices, green space and good jobs for their community members, not a Wal-Mart.

And on the issue of shopper dollar leakage to New Jersey the SIEDC report again contradicts the official position. If tax discrepancies encourage Island shoppers to leave, they will continue to do so even if a Wal-Mart is built in the borough (more on this). There is no incentive for a Wal-Mart shopper from Staten Island to stop going to Jersey (with its lower sales and gas taxes), and instead shop in the more expensive, identical New York Wal-Mart. Though it is true that the Staten Island store would be physically closer (and in theory more convenient) due to the traffic that SIEDC acknowledges (and would be exacerbated by Wal-Mart) that possible advantage would be canceled out.

Just as mind-boggling is that SIEDC’s support for Wal-Mart comes amidst their campaign to keep local business on the Island. According to their website the program’s goals are to:

Encourage local companies and residents to utilize Staten Island Businesses for all products and services

Support your neighbors (local vendors)

Work to protect the future – preventing businesses from relocating or going out of business

[Recognize the] Economic impact of doing business locally
These are laudable aims but ones that become laughable when taken in conjunction with SIEDC’s active support of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart will lead to the closure of a number of small businesses as well as independent and regional supermarkets that anchor the strips where neighborhood retailers are situated. The mega-retailer does not utilize local vendors and, more generally, does not contribute to the so-called multiplier effect where local businesses stretch the dollar by using other local businesses.

It seems that the economic development agency is good at pinpointing problems to the Island’s future development but not quite as adept at proposing viable solutions. Is this perhaps because of untoward political influence over their policy suggestions? We suggest that the SIEDC and its various representatives reread their own materials, revisit their own goals, and truly examine the impacts of Wal-Mart, before suggesting that the mega-retailer is good for Staten Island.

p.s. According to a source, SIEDC executive director Cesar Claro, has claimed that he's done extensive surveying which shows that the two stores Staten Islanders want most are Target and Wal-Mart. Besides seriously doubting the methodology here, we believe that it is inappropriate for an agency charged with examining economic impacts to transform itself into an opinion survey organization. Instead of trying to push an agenda, the SIEDC should be thoroughly examining the impacts of a Wal-Mart, including its affect on traffic, jobs, crime, infrastructure usage, etc… If the agency won’t do this maybe it should disband and reconstitute itself as PR firm for the Borough President.