John Karis: Lowe’s – Gift or Trojan horse? |

John Karis: Lowe’s – Gift or Trojan horse?

by John Karis

The specter of Big Boxes has returned yet again to Summit County. Citizens of Silverthorne and county residents are holding their breath as the town council prepares to vote in the wake of the planning commission’s approval. Whatever the decision, it will be momentous.

In the wings are two camps. Proponents view the addition of Lowe’s and Home Depot as an economic boost to the community; opponents view more “big boxes” as precursors to a host of fatal side-effects to the community – economic, environmental, social and aesthetic.

There have been many predicted outcomes propounded by both camps. Lowe’s has provided its own report, which many have said is flawed. The economic development committee has presented theirs. Many communities across the country, however, have already gone down this path, and studies have been done measuring exactly what has happened.

Jobs: A joint study by UC Irvine, Clark University and Cornell found that the presence of a single big-box retailer reduced county-wide retail employment by 150 jobs. A University of Missouri study determined the number of jobs created by the arrival of big boxes was nearly half the 200-300 touted and was offset by the loss of 40-60 jobs due to closures of local retailers. For every job brought to the county by big boxes, roughly 1.4 were lost.

Tax revenues: Research indicates gross tax revenues from sales often decline from big box stores due to the loss of local retailers. The University of Chicago found that, within a year after opening a Walmart, 23 of the 191 stores surveyed had closed. A study at the University of Iowa found that “sales of hardware and building supplies grow in the host communities, but at the expense of sales in smaller towns nearby.” As time went on, hardware and building supply sales dropped sharply “often dropping below their initial levels, as more big box stores opened in the surrounding region and saturated the market.”

Revenues vs. costs: A study prepared for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission “cautions cities not to be taken in by the promise of high tax revenue from a new development without also considering the additional costs of providing services.” The Vermont State Environmental Board decision of 1994 found that for every dollar generated by a super store, it cost the region $2.50 in expenses. A Massachusetts study found big-box retail stores produce an annual deficit in tax revenue, due primarily to higher road construction, maintenance and greater demand for public safety services.

Traffic: In 2006, a study by the Institute of Transportation Engineers found traffic levels generated by big boxes were as much as 42 percent higher than what their own ITE Trip Generation manual calculated.

Social well-being: The metrics of social well-being or “social capital” are measured by voter turnout, civic participation in nonprofit groups, organizations and other indicators. Studies measuring social capital in big box locations found that they were all significantly lower.

Aesthetic/environmental: When the market plays out, big boxes abandon their buildings, parking lots and impact to the local economy. As recently as Aug. 25, Channel 4 News in Albuquerque carried a story of Lowe’s abandoning another of its completed stores – before it opened – giving no explanation other than “it was a high level corporate decision and was not isolated to Unser Crossing (in Albuquerque) but to other sites throughout the country as well.”

These few studies don’t tell the whole story, but they should give us pause. A decision of this complexity and magnitude without consideration for the broader impacts it will have on the entire community, can and will have unforeseen consequences. When we decide, will this be our grandest vision, our most marvelous possibility, the most harmonious outcome for the present and future makeup of this beautiful mountain community? The oracles of science have warned us of those “bearing gifts.”

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