Stacy Mitchell is a researcher with the New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit organization that provides research, analysis, and innovative policy solutions for building healthy communities and strong, sustainable local economies. She is author of The Home Town Advantage.

Monday, 2 Oct 2000

TOLEDO, Ohio

I am at the airport, which seems to be the story of my life this past week, waiting to board a plane for the first of a two-leg journey home to Minneapolis.

I came to Toledo to participate in a panel discussion on “The Future of Independent Retail.” I was one of four speakers at the event put on by the Great Lakes Booksellers Association (GLBA) as part of their annual trade show and conference. I expected the session to be lightly attended; it was one of the last items on a four-day schedule. But instead we had a good turnout, nearly filling the hall.

GLBA is one of several regional trade associations of independent booksellers, people who’ve managed one way or another to survive the explosion of chain bookstores (Barnes & Noble and Borders Books), mass merchandisers (like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club), and online retailers (Amazon.com). Many of their colleagues have not. Independent bookstores now account for just 15 percent of book sales, down from about 60 percent in the 1970s.

Every retail sector has undergone a similar transformation in the last decade as a handful of large corporate chains displace small, locally owned stores. Rite Aid, Walgreen’s, and CVS now control much of the pharmacy market, while more than 11,000 independent pharmacies have closed since 1990. Local hardware dealers are losing ground to Home Depot and Lowe’s. Blockbuster rents one out of every three videos. Five firms control one-third of grocery sales. A single firm, Wal-Mart, now accounts for 7 percent of all consumer spending.

That’s the bad news. But I came to Toledo primarily to talk about the good news. A growing number of people are fighting back. They are organizing to keep chain stores out of their communities and to support local retailers and healthy downtowns. Hundreds of communities have now said no to chain store developments, and many more are moving to do the same. In Arlington, Texas, citizens beat back a Wal-Mart. In Evanston, Ill., it was a Starbucks.

Best of all, many communities are now taking this fight beyond the defensive. Instead of fighting off these retail developments one by one, they are enacting proactive land use and zoning policies that protect the character of the community, limit retail sprawl, deter chains, strengthen local stores, and support humanly scaled, pedestrian-friendly business districts.

This is where the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) comes in. My work with local retailers is part of ILSR’s New Rules Project. The premise of the New Rules Project is that many laws and policies in place at all levels of government are weakening communities, local economies, the environment, and democracy by fostering concentrated economic power and suppressing local authority. For example: trade policies that shift control of our economic and political future to distant, unaccountable, global powers (whether they be the WTO or Archer Daniels Midland); planning and zoning policies that encourage sprawling “big box” chain stores and unsustainable land use patterns; and state laws that strip towns of the right to say no to industrial hog farm operations. The list could go on.

We believe it’s time to change the rules. Since the inception of the New Rules Project three years ago, we’ve been researching and identifying model policies that support strong communities and sustainable, locally rooted economies. We work with activists and policymakers to help implement these new rules in communities around the country.

One of our biggest endeavors has been the creation of a searchable online collection of model rules — the New Rules website. It’s organized by sector. Under “Agriculture,” for example, you’ll find examples of legislation that can limit agribusiness and support small farms. Some of the rules are model policies; others are actual laws implemented by one or more towns, counties, or states. The full text of the law can be viewed and downloaded. The idea is to provide activists and policymakers with templates for enacting new rules in their own communities.

Under “Retail,” you’ll find examples of the kinds of policies I urged the audience of independent bookstore owners to push for in their own hometowns. Some communities, for instance, have banned retail development over a certain size, keeping out “big box” stores and giant shopping centers. Some require that proposals for new development undergo a comprehensive review. To pass, the developer must demonstrate that the new store will not have an adverse impact on such things as the environment, traffic, community character, and the local economy. Other communities have banned uniformity by adopting what are known as formula business bans.

All of these policies, as well as a detailed look at the negative impact chains are having on local economies and communities, are described in a book ILSR published this year: The Home Town Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why It Matters. As you might imagine, the book is widely available at independent bookstores.

Well, they’ve started the “pre-boarding,” which of course is utterly nonsensical. One either boards the plane or doesn’t. There’s no way to get on before getting on.

More tomorrow!