`Place' of business


Development: An Anne Arundel group pushes for local ownership over corporate giants, arguing it's good for the environment.

March 12, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

FOUR OF THE 10 RICHEST AMERICANS — Asking questions, connecting dots:

Four of the 10 richest Americans -- $88 billion in combined wealth -- hail from one small town, Bentonville, Ark. Think heirs of Sam Walton.

Is Bentonville 80-some billion times better off than most small towns? What could that $88 billion be doing if Wal-Mart had not vacuumed it from the local economies of every corner of America? ...

No other nation provides more food, cheaper, than ours; yet farmers survive through government subsidy checks, and farming contributes to two-thirds of our water pollution.

French farms, by contrast, are small and inefficient. But when's the last time a Monet or a Van Gogh emerged to immortalize the countryside of Nebraska, Iowa or South Dakota? ...

Pardon my heretical thought processes, but the mood was infectious, talking over coffee recently with Annapolis community activist Anne Pearson and her small band -- which would challenge notions of global trade and corporate dominance.

Where we met for coffee mattered -- mattered that it was not Starbucks, but 49 West, where local owner Brian Cahalan walks to work, sweeps his front sidewalk every morning, features original music and art, and is deeply involved in making Annapolis a viable community.

Like local business people everywhere, Cahalan is wholly invested in the place where he does business.

Today's multinationals and giant corporations, by contrast, seem more invested in the ruthless pursuit of resources from place to place, moving -- with jobs -- whenever a cheaper, or less regulated, place beckons.

Preserving and cultivating a sense of place has long been a cause of Pearson's. She argues that it's central to creating truly sustainable societies, ones that treat their workers and their environments well as part of doing business.

Right now, her Alliance for Sustainable Communities is struggling to keep the proposed redevelopment of 34-acre Parole Plaza in Annapolis from going the Wal-Mart route. It's too much traffic, too much paving, too much polluting storm water going into the sensitive headwaters of local creeks, she says.

It's also two few community amenities -- Parole ought to include more than stores -- a marsh, an ice skating pond, views of wildlife.

Tough task ahead

Suffice it to say that she has her work cut out for her. This doesn't surprise Michael H. Shuman, a lawyer, economist and national expert on sustainable communities who advises the Alliance.

"Place" has little place in the current scheme of global economics, says Shuman, whose 1998 book, Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age (Routledge, $17.95), is recommended.

"Communities and states today pursue an economic development strategy of pursuing the big anchors at all costs, and trying to fit their products into a global economy," Shuman says.

He says it's misguided, often "as much about politics as business [translate, bragging rights for landing a big-box store, or a corporate headquarters]."

Shuman and others have studied the tradeoffs in favoring remote-controlled business over local enterprise.

Austin, Texas, backed off a big subsidy to attract a Borders Books & Music after an economic analysis. It showed that two local bookstores, endangered by the proposed Borders, returned $43 to the local economy of every $100 spent. The Borders would have returned about $13.

A recent Oregon study, Shuman says, found that more than 95 percent of tax breaks to boost the economy went to a few nonlocal businesses. But local business was producing 15 times the number of jobs as the bigs.

Subsidies for big-box stores and malls go well beyond tax giveaways. They include roads, sewers, storm-water treatment and loss of open space.

Shuman challenges conventional economics, which not only endorse unrelenting competition for mobile corporations and shifting export markets, but view the resulting instability for localities as healthy overall, stimulating competitiveness.

It is, he says, like telling a loyal wife to accept the inevitability of her husband philandering, to learn to cook and dress better to regain his attention again for a while.

He has no illusions that local places can or should wall themselves off from outside competition. It's a matter of balance, of government choosing to favor and nurture local enterprise.

His is very much a pro-business agenda. Traditional labor and socialist approaches to protecting jobs, he says, "have had remarkably little to say about creating new jobs, or stimulating healthy economies."

Reliance on federal pork to shore up local economies is also a loser. Better, he says, "to ask Washington for the local legal and political power to support homegrown businesses."

A local movement

Pearson is forming an alliance of businesses committed to a sustainable future for Anne Arundel, hoping to join similar organizations in some 40 towns and cities nationwide. She is raising $20,000 to finance a study by Shuman that she thinks will convince elected officials that it makes economic sense to favor local enterprises over remote ownership.

It's likely that traditional environmental groups can't muster the broad support needed to achieve ambitious agendas to restore the Chesapeake Bay -- a "place" dear to our hearts.

The sustainable movement, combining jobs and economic stimulation with protecting natural resources, is a promising new avenue.

Pearson can be reached at 410-956-1002 or at aplace@ toad.net.

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