Wal-Mart won't improve the life we all strive for


March 30, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Is there such a thing as critical mass in the consumer marketplace? And if so, have we reached it?

Of course, retail marketing and physics have little in common. But critical mass, the way I understand the term -- and I'm no rocket scientist -- refers generally to the minimum amount of something needed to produce a given effect.

When scientists discuss critical mass, they speak in terms of chain reactions. I'm talking chain stores. One in particular: Wal-Mart.

I don't have a marketing study, but I have a hunch, and the hunch is this: We can probably get by without a Wal-Mart in White Marsh, near the mall. The Baltimore consumer marketplace reached critical mass years ago.

Sunday, I drove across the Beltway to Belair Road, stopped at Kmart, went north to White Marsh Boulevard, past B.J.'s Wholesale Club, then meandered to Pulaski Highway, past the Price Club, west toward the city, ending up on Eastern Avenue. During that ride, I concluded that, all things considered, life, as we know it, will not change dramatically if construction of the Wal-Mart is not approved.

To say so, I don't need a lot of mumbo-jumbo from free market economists, thank you. What I know is what I see. And I see plenty of places to buy stuff.

Consumers have, God bless us, access to everything we could possibly need to maintain the lifestyles to which we have grown accustomed. Toilet paper, cat litter, dog food, deodorant, tomato paste, floor wax . . . If you have the money, you can buy it.

Why Wal-Mart?

Is it going to offer something we haven't seen before? It's just another giant store taking up giant amounts of space -- 116,000 square feet inside and enough paved surface for 750 cars outside. Pardon my yawn. It's been done!

White Marsh residents are putting up a fight because, in addition to nibbling a small piece of wetlands, the proposed Wal-Mart will gobble up the last decent stretch of open space they have.

My heart is with them, but I can't help note the irony in people who live in town houses, ranchers and vinyl-sided colonials, most of them constructed within the last decade or so, complaining about a depletion of open space. Though the taking of open space made possible the developments in which they live, they now stand ready to limit that environmental obscenity.

Enough of the irony. If not they, then who?

Actually, it amazes me that there's any kind of fight at all. For years, development spread deeper and deeper into the Maryland countryside beyond Baltimore. Once the houses were built, what was to stop more housing developments and strip shopping centers and malls from following? There was a time, in the mid-1980s, when it seemed like every last square foot of nonfarm open space would be stripped and developed. And many farms disappeared, too.

Out in Howard County five years ago, I watched a farmer conduct spring planting, and the dust from his harrows fell on the roofs of a dozen new pastel houses at the edge of his soybean field. When he retired, he said, he'd sell to developers.

I was in Arizona last year for the first time in 10 years and was astounded at how much of the desert beyond Phoenix had become a valley of terra cotta roofs. Where before it took only minutes to drive from my friend's rancher into the desert, it now took close to an hour, a trip past endless blocks of housing developments and shopping centers on both sides of a six-lane boulevard.

I believe in free enterprise, but a lot of it is misdirected. We don't need another giant warehouse store in which Americans sell things made in other countries to each other. We probably don't need more shopping centers and malls. What we do need, for instance, is better mass transit linking the shopping centers and malls that already exist.

But beyond that, what we really need is entrepreneurs with better ideas, a new product or technology that will lead to job creation in the global economy of the 21st century. We need to improve and recycle old houses instead of building new ones in the last of our suburban open spaces. For that to happen we need regional thinking, better regional planning, and the willingness of people of different races to live together. We need to remember what unites us -- the desire for a high quality of life for everyone. Yet another Wal-Mart doesn't get us any closer.

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