Monday, May 18, 2009

Sueprmarket Planning, God Laughs

In what amounts to a really strange move, the state and city have announced that they are moving ahead on the supermarket initiative that we had discussed a few months ago-and did it late Friday afternoon without any fanfare. In a press release from the Food Trust we are told: "To coincide with the announcement of the Healthy Food/Healthy Communities initiative and the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health Program (FRESH) announced today by New York Governor David A. Paterson, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, the New York Supermarket Commission and The Food Trust have released a full list of recommendations, Stimulating Supermarket Development: A New Day in New York."

Why the secrecy? Perhaps it has something to do with the disagreements from some in the industry and labor over the narrow scope of the proposal. As we wrote some time ago; commenting on the Observer's article on the topic: "So who could object? Well, perhaps that habitual naysayer might find the plan wanting: "Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents grocery store workers, said the draft policies were a “good step,” but do not go far enough to counter the forces that are continually shuttering grocery stores citywide. “The more compelling policy issue is the disappearance of existing stores,” he said. He also urged the city to prioritize grocery store uses when selling off city-owned land, which was one of the Planning Department’s own recommendations last fall."

So, aside from the fact that we represent the RWDSU (sister union of the UFCW), the point is right on target-the city has concentrated on new growth when the 400-500 existing stores are not really given the kind of attention they deserve; especially considering the fact that it's existing store disappearance that's the crux of the crisis. Local markets need a real stimulus package, not one that offers a slight boost to newcomers while ignoring the exisiting stores.

But this underscores the weakness of the so-called Bloomberg "five borough" economic development plan. When examined carefully we see that the mayor's election campaign rap has a nice tune, but the lyrics ring false; because beneath all of the feel good pictures of Mike Bloomberg actually talkng to common New Yorkers, lies the reality of job loss, store closings, and an administration whose policies have ignored-at best-the problems of small business in the city. Which brings us to the heart of our critique of the supermarket initiative-even (or especially because)one that is well intended.

It will take years for this proposal to bear fruit; and in all likelihood, if the city spawns four or five new markets in the coming decade because of this plan, that will be a lot. In the meantime, though, the neighborhood economies continue to be devastated-exacerbated by a housing debacle that is forcing middle class Black and Latino folks in many city communities from their homes. And these are precisely those areas where the supermarket crisis is often most severe.

The economic challenge here is one that relates to the cost of doing business. The Bloombergistas, so focused on large scale development and Wall Street-centric, have increased taxes and unleashed a regulatory wave that has priced neighborhood retailers right out of the city. The sales taxes hike and the inane plastic bag tax are simply emblematic of an anti-small business world view that can't be eradicated with campaign propaganda disinfectant.

It also underscores the weakness of the Bloomberg world view. The mayor has supported a slew of business taxes and fees-from the aforementioned sales tax, to the devastating commercial real estate tax and the confiscatory bodega tax on tobacco. There are, however, places where he draws the line. When Freddy Ferrer proposed a stock transfer tax in 2005, Bloomberg let out a geshrie. As the Village Voice observed at the time: " Ferrer's early endorsement of a stock-transfer tax gave the mayor the ammunition he needed to depict Ferrer as an ideologue with no grasp of what makes the New York economic engine purr..."

So when it came to that part of the economy where the Bloomberg cohort dwells, the mayor was steadfast in his opposition to any tax because, at least there, he understood that such a levy would hurt the economy he prizes. But when it came to taxing a bodega staple-tobacco products, the Bloomberg response was; "It's a minor economic issue." And the loss of over $250 million a year in this sector to the black market is a big contributing factor to record store closings and evictions.

These policies, along with the current recession, is what lies at the crux of the city's-and state's-economic woes; something that a few loans made available in an election year will not ameliorate. If we examine the Bloomberg tenure, we have what amounts to a Pogo situation. The cartoon character's most famous remark applies to Mike Bloomberg: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."