Monday, June 05, 2006

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Take a look at the lawn signs rolling down Route 50 and even an outsider can get an idea of the venomous fight that has roiled among residents over Walmart’s plans to erect a 223,000-square-foot “supercenter” in the town of Ballston.

Now take a gander at the new signs that have popped up along the same roadway, announcing the closing sale blowout of yet another K-mart –this one dubbed a “Super-K” –less than 10 miles south in the town of Glenville. It’s an odd juxtaposition that few people in Ballston have publicly made notice of, whether they support bringing a big box store into the heart of town or not.

Building one of these behemoth stores isn’t that difficult for a thriving multi-national corporation at the top of its game. And for cash-strapped communities feeling the brunt of rising annual levies, having a large retailer adds money to the tax rolls and brings jobs to the area, albeit generally low-paying jobs.

But what is often ignored in debates about big-box retailers is what fate might befall their gargantuan stores if the parent company goes belly-up. And given the track record of many large retailers, it’s often not a question of if, as much as it is a question of when.

Take for example the awe inspiring plummet of K-Mart, which looked like a prototypical model for retail success through out the 1980s and much of the 1990s. Within 15 miles of nearly every town in the Capital Region, there was at least some sign of the retailer, whether it was the mighty Super-K, a more moderate-sized supermarket outlet or one of the company’s behemoth distribution centers.

Then, Wall Street pulled the plug on K-Mart, causing the once-bustling cluster of stores to wither up almost overnight. Instead of vanishing, however, the company left behind an enduring legacy in the massive rotting shells dotting the landscape; too big for any moderate sized business to use and too costly to be ripped down.

In the town of Amsterdam in Montgomery County, it’s been nearly three years since a neighborhood-sized K-Mart on Route 30 last saw customers. Today, it’s become a haven for rubbish as the building is transferred from one holding company to the next. And with retail competition at a peek along the road, it’s not likely that another box retailer is going to test the waters anytime soon.

Similarly, a K-Mart’s location in Saratoga Springs only recently sprouted a pair of new businesses –a tractor supply company and a furniture store –after remaining vacant for nearly three years. The last third of the store –not even considered one of K-Mart’s larger area branches –remains vacant to date.

Granted, there’s obviously a market for big box stores, especially when times are tight and people across the board are looking for nearby bargains. But that shouldn’t absolve a corporation of what should be its obligation to protect the better interest of the areas where they do business, even if they do end up filing for bankruptcy.

Here’s a simple solution for municipalities to protect themselves: mandate a contingency plan to be in place for retailers over a certain size. Demand that box store retailers set up a fund in advance to cover the cost of demolition, if they suddenly go bankrupt. Then require them to either fill the store or tear it down within two years after vacating.

Basically, this would provide a litmus test for the community to gague Walmart or any other boxstore retailer that comes sniffing around; if the company has a vested interest in making a store work, they’ll shell out what will ultimately be very little in comparison to legal and public relations campaigns. Such a contingency agreement would also offer an ounce of appeasement to detractors, who often express just fears over uncaring corporate monoliths setting up shop in their backyards.

And given the cut-throat rise-and-fall atmosphere of big business, it would be comforting for for the community at large to know that there is indeed life after Walmart that doesn't involve watching an already unsightly warehouse rot into obscurity on the hillside.

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