Monday, October 17, 2005

Big Box Hypocrisy

The fight over the proliferation of big box store such as BJ’s and Wal-Mart is regularly portrayed by (mostly conservative) supporters of these retailers as a battle between labor and consumers. In this worldview the union "protectionists" are preventing NYC consumers from availing themselves of the lower prices offered by the mega-store. This dichotomy is thoroughly misleading.

The latest false dichotomy salvo in this battle comes from Adam Brodsky in yesterday's New York Post. Citing the Council's passage of the HCSA as a "stealth ban" on "Big Box" stores he observes that the health care bill "is only the latest drubbing New Yorkers have endured at the hands of Big Labor.

Brodsky goes on to say that the HCSA, "if it sticks," will force New Yorkers to "keep schlepping out to New Jersey or the Island if they want to enjoy bargains at stores like Wal-Mart and Sam's Club." Aside from Brodsky overstating the obstructing power of the law – Wal-Mart is after all pursuing two sites on Staten Island and BJ's is doing the same in the Bronx – he is also misconstruing the kind of opposition that these stores generate in conservative homeowner communities.

Brodsky will continue to do this so he can keep on beatin' up on the Big Labor bogeyman and avoid the cognitive dissonance of the facts on the ground. His ideological blinders are underscored in yesterday's NY Times story on Maspeth, Queens. This conservative homeowner community is supporting the mayor. Why? Because he intervened to prevent KeySpan from using a large vacant parcel that it owned for a Home Depot.

As two local leaders, Tony Nunziato and John Holden, tell the Times it is Bloomberg's support of efforts to defeat the mega-store, an effort that saw the community mobilize hundreds of residents into the streets in "a general rallying 'round on behalf of local shopping," that drives the community's support of the mayor's re-election. As Holden, head of the Juniper Civic Association says, "Most people in Maspeth can still walk to the store, and they want to keep it that way."

Which is precisely the point that the Alliance has been making all over the city. This conservative case against Wal-Mart has started to take hold in communities much like Maspeth. Just last week we met with civic leaders on the South Shore of Staten Island and many of the Maspeth arguments resonated here as well.

They are the kind of arguments that, because they emphasize local shopping, traffic and quality of life issues, are immune to the public relations campaign of Wal-Mart. The opposition, then, has nothing to do with how people feel about the store's quality. In fact the more popular the store the more opposition it will tend to generate in these communities, something that Steve Greenhouse highlighted in his story on Staten Island and Wal-Mart in the NY Times.

We don't think that the good folks of Maspeth harbor any intrinsic animus to Home Depot or any other box store. They may be the same people who are traveling to Long Island to shop at Home Depot or Wal-Mart there. They are, however, opposed to such stores contiguous to their homes and their neighborhood shopping strips.

That is why Bloomberg, in spite of his rhetorical support for mega-stores, intervened in Maspeth and why Giuliani, who also supported big boxes, killed projects in Bay Ridge, Mill Basin and Forest Hills. The debate, Mr. Brodsky, needs to transcend the tired dichotomy of consumers vs. Big Labor and enter into the realm of neighborhood economics and community quality-of-life.