Frederick and The Geography of Nowhere
The alarm has been sounded, “Starbucks is coming. Starbucks is coming.” No word yet as to whether or not a “coffee party” has been organized to dump coffee grounds into Carroll Creek.
Nevertheless, at the City of Frederick’s Mayor and Board of Aldermen Workshop November 7, Aldermen David "Kip" Koontz and Marcia A. Hall, who are liaison to the Downtown Frederick Partnership, initiated a discussion about plans to take four months “to survey residents about a possible ban on chain stores downtown,” according to NBC4 News.
On November 12, political commentator Matt Johnson wrote: “In the past year, since the opening of the (Carroll Creek) Linear Park, high end condo(s) are now going in, raising the property values and increasing the appeal of Frederick. But a new problem is raising its head – national chain (stores) and franchises.”
Many communities in Maryland, who continue to struggle to revitalize their downtown business districts, would love to have this problem. Of course, many Maryland communities have the added burden of attempting to attract business and economic development in a state widely perceived as anti-business.
In a press conference on October 30, the Tax Foundation, joined by the Maryland Public Policy Institute, “unveiled a new study revealing that Maryland's competitiveness will fall sharply if the tax changes proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley are enacted.”
The press conference unveiled “Fiscal Fact No. 109” in anticipation of the Maryland General Assembly Special Taxing Session, which indicates that under the then-proposed tax initiatives, Maryland would fall to 43rd best in business competitiveness among the 50 states. Before the tax initiatives were unveiled, “Maryland ranked 24th best…”
“Maryland's income tax would be the 49th worst system, trailing only California… The Index ranks states based on the taxes that matter most to businesses and business investment: corporate tax, individual income tax, sales tax, unemployment tax and property tax.”
Not to be overlooked is the bureaucratic and regulatory environment, which in many municipalities has become increasingly onerous as towns across Maryland flail, thrash and flounder in communal angst as to how to attract some business investment in their communities, and yet discourage other enterprises deemed “undesirable.”
The rant about chain stores and “big box retailers” is nothing new to contemporary urban planners.
A December 2006 Atlantic Monthly article, “In Praise of Chain Stores,” leads with the quip that columnist Thomas Friedman once told Charlie Rose: “Every well-traveled cosmopolite knows that America is mind-numbingly monotonous—the most boring country to tour, because everywhere looks like everywhere else.”
And the beef about sterile, cold, cookie-cutter businesses run by absentee owners, who only take from a community and give nothing back in return, has resonated among at “least 20 other municipalities throughout the country…”
These municipalities have “enacted laws limiting where chain businesses can operate, according to the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance,” wrote Frederick News-Post writer Justin Palk on November 8.
Founded in 1974, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has remained at the forefront providing research, technical assistance, and information on environmentally sound economic development strategies and a leading critic of “big box retailers.”
Mr. Palk wrote: “Opponents of such a measure believe there is no proof the city needs to keep chain stores out of downtown, and that existing rules already make it hard to attract businesses.”
Many urban planners and economists understand that what made our communities great were free market enterprise and economics and not public policy. Long before Euclidean Zoning and the aggressive regulatory overlay, downtown business districts thrived – before government stepped-in to “help.”
Many agree with Mr. Johnson, who deliberated at one point in his commentary: “The free market guy in me says let the big stores come. If the city and its residents really don't want them here, then they will not patronize those stores and the stores will eventually leave. The market will sort them out without the need of the City to get involved.”
That is, before he said, “A total ban serves no one, but unfettered entry also destroys one of the greatest things about where I live.” He concluded that he likes the idea of “large town convenience outside the downtown area and small town charm inside it.”
“Alderman Alan Imhoff was the lone board member to oppose the idea outright. He said the city has enough planning and historic preservation rules on the books to keep chain stores out if it so desires,” wrote Mr. Palk.
Mr. Palk reports Alderman Koontz responded: “Just because the city is studying the idea doesn't mean there will definitely be an ordinance.”
Nevertheless, it is well accepted that a local community has a right, if not an obligation, to set health, welfare and quality-of-life standards. It is a civic, if not moral, obligation of community leaders to come together to preserve and protect the idiosyncratic historic flavor of downtown Frederick that is a Mid-Atlantic treasure.
Moreover, above and beyond quality-of-life issues, the economics of chain stores and big box retailers still maintains a long-term deleterious economic impact in return for a “Potemkin Village” short-term gain. An economic model which is built on all the profit electronically transferred out of the community in less than 24 hours to an owner who hasn’t a clue where Frederick is – nor cares.
Whether or not Frederick’s mayor and alderman decide to specifically adopt measures limiting where chain businesses can operate, it is certainly in the greater community’s best interests to maintain aggressive “historic district guidelines” to sustain the character of the community for generations in the future.
Hopefully that fine line can be walked so as to not inhibit business and economic investment (and perhaps a Starbucks or Panera Bread…) and yet still be a deterrent to being overrun by an invasion of beige decor, brass planters, and plastic plants that would relegate Frederick to the ranks of the banal, sterile, and cold geography of nowhere.
Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org