Many people mistakenly think that Wal-Mart’s plan to build a superbox on Stillwater Avenue would bring economic opportunities to Bangor, and that conserving the Penjajawoc Marsh and its buffer zones would have a negative impact on the local economy.
It’s a natural and understandable thought, but just plain wrong. In actual fact, conserving the marsh makes much better economic sense than building a superstore. It will keep taxes lower, help preserve existing Bangor businesses and the jobs they provide, and help Bangor to realize the economic advantages of enhancing its unique sense of place.
Wal-Marts don’t enhance the local economy. In community after community, from California to Iowa, Illinois, New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts, studies have found that Wal-Marts have been like cowbirds in community economic life. Cowbirds don’t build nests. They lay eggs in smaller birds’ nests, eggs that hatch chicks that grow faster and take food from the beaks of the “host” parents, whose own chicks then die.
Like cowbird chicks, Wal-Marts often leave the nest once they have depleted its resources. Wal-Mart is the largest producer of empty retail stores in America. As of February 1999 it had left 333 empty buildings spread across 31 states.
Wal-Marts do not bring a substantial net increase of jobs. Their success comes at the expense of failed local businesses. Jobs disappear when local businesses have to close. Wal-Mart jobs, with low pay and poor benefits, are not a desirable substitute.
Building a Wal-Mart superbox would probably raise Bangor property taxes. Surprising as it may seem, examination of tax records from municipalities in several states, including Maine, demonstrates that municipalities with more commercial real estate have higher property taxes. All real estate requires town services of some kind – fire protection, police, water and sewer, road and road maintenance, and the like.
True, commercial real estate usually pays more in taxes than it uses in services. However, commercial real estate brings people, who create residential real estate, which brings rising property taxes. Additional residences require more schools and other services.
Any additional jobs that Wal-Mart might create would lead to higher property taxes. If Wal-Mart competition closes local businesses, those businesses will not pay property taxes, thus increasing the tax burden on the rest of us. If we add to Bangor’s commercial real estate, let’s bring businesses that will add value to the job market rather than providing poor substitutes for existing jobs, businesses that will bring money into the community by paying good salaries rather than sending money to Wall Street at the expense of poorly compensated workers who will require additional community support for basic health and other services.
Undeveloped land brings the lowest tax burden to its community. Imagine 10 acres of open land. If the landowner gives or sells the land to a conservation organization, and the land is removed from the property tax rolls, there will be a slight increase for every other taxpayer in the community. The tax pie is divided among fewer people and everyone has a slightly larger piece. But the increase will be significantly less than it would be if that land were to be developed.
Development results in a bigger overall tax burden, a pie that grows faster than the number of taxpayers to divide it up, and the increase in each taxpayer’s piece is bigger than it would have been if the land had been taken off the tax rolls entirely. From a property tax point of view, the best thing to do with a piece of land is conserve it.
Land conservation has other important economic benefits as well. All across the United States, the communities that do better economically in good times and bad are communities that preserve and enhance their natural and historic heritage, the qualities that make them unique and give their members a sense of belonging to a place. These communities make conscientious choices about their growth and are able to attract businesses that add value to the region’s economic life rather than draining it.
Think about it: If you were looking for a place to locate your business, wouldn’t you rather choose a city where the inhabitants cherished and protected the most beautiful and unusual parts of the natural environment, consolidated development, maintained safe, pedestrian-friendly traffic patterns, and avoided sprawl, than locate in a city where the citizens had allowed out-of-town developers to pave the wetlands, build stores that look like cancers on the landscape, and turn the salmon streams into storm sewers?
Bangor has an historic opportunity. Will we follow the path of homogenized commercial America and bulldoze our natural heritage? Or will we say no to mindless superstore development, and preserve both the diversity of small businesses that have nurtured our economy for over 200 years and the Penjajawoc Marsh habitat? Make your voice heard at the Bangor Planning Board.
Lucy G. Quimby, Ph.D. lives in Bangor and is a member of the Bangor Area Citizens Organized for Responsible Development.