Measuring the Big Box

Posted Feb. 24, 2011, at 11:54 p.m.

The recession chilled big-box fever in Maine, but as the economy recovers, large chain stores will be back in the state, seeking to build stores in communities that may be ill-equipped to evaluate their impact. That’s why the Informed Growth Act, enacted in 2007, should remain in Maine law. Gov. Paul LePage has identified the law as one of the impediments to economic development in the state and is seeking to repeal it.

The law allows municipalities to require developers that are planning retail stores of 75,000 square feet or more to pay for an economic impact study. The results of such a study can be used by towns and cities to deny permits to big-box developers. It’s certainly true that big-box developers would rather not fork over money to pay for an independent study. It could be argued that even though big-box retailers can afford to pay for studies, such laws “nickel and dime” businesses to death. And such laws could be seen as Maine giving a cold shoulder to business.

But such arguments miss the point that Maine’s downtowns, and the portion of our vaunted quality of life they represent, must be considered in any analysis of a big-box store. Planning boards typically review the stormwater run-off plans for the big parking lots these stores need. They evaluate the impact the store will have on traffic flow and may decide a new turning lane or even a new traffic light is needed.

So shouldn’t planners need to know if a new big-box store is likely to put a beloved family run hardware store out of business? Or if the new store is likely to result in a half-dozen empty storefronts on Main Street? Or, contrary to the bad news scenarios, if it means restaurants on the town’s gateway roads will see more business?

Big-box retailers don’t open new stores out of benevolence; they open them because their own market studies show the strong likelihood of profitability in that community. A relatively small additional expense is not going to dissuade them from opening a new store.

Big-box stores are different from other kinds of retail businesses. Every $1 spent on retail results in 45 cents circulating through a community, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. But large chain stores put just 13 cents of that $1 spent back through the local economy, according to the organization.

Another consideration an economic impact study may suggest is the amount of retail space a community can bear, with regard to municipal services. According to the Urban Land Institute, there were 4 square feet of retail space for every person in the United State in 1960; in 2000, that had grown to 38 square feet per person.

Parts of the state never will hear big-box stores come knocking. Other parts of the state have made their peace with big boxes, and they are part of the economic landscape. But in some regions — the midcoast, Ellsworth, central Maine — the new stores have begun to eclipse downtowns. Communities need to know what economic future they are ushering in when big stores come to town.

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