August 2007


This is my fifth and final post in responding to the question:

“Under what circumstances does having a Wal-Mart seem like a good idea?”

I’ve touched on several factors that have lent themselves to the placement of Wal-Mart in Little Falls – transportation issues (where the roads go, so goes the business), lack of diversity in businesses, our vision that our city’s economy is based on agriculture and industry, an aversion to risk-taking and competition, a slow-footedness in moving into the Information Age, local businesses that pay employees poverty wages and offer no benefits, and little support of small and in-home businesses. I could also add our long-standing “shop at home” mentality.

Perhaps the biggest reason for having a Wal-Mart – why it seems like a good idea – is that everyone else has one. Wal-Mart itself is partially to blame because of its world domination strategies, but so are we and every other community that rushes to homogenization.

The scenario has been played out over and over across our nation. We want to leave the metropolises and take our cars into the country to get away. We need roads to do that, oh, and as long as we’ve got a road and a lake cabin, or country house, we kind of need groceries and other amenities. Boy, look at this big piece of property we’re sitting on. We could subdivide it, sell it off to the highest bidder – and the highest bidder is the big chain store, or the multi-unit development. We have a small, but successful business, but we’re ready to get out for whatever the reason. Let’s sell it to the competition for the highest price we can get. Again, the big chain store or restaurant comes to the rescue, until we’ve got a whole lot of towns that look like a whole lot of other towns. The phenomenon is so well documented that books have been written about it. One particularly is James Howard Kunstler’s “The Geography of Nowhere.”

It all just seems like the thing to do, until we don’t like where it’s gotten us. But we’re only stuck if we think we’re stuck. We can get off the merry-go-round and redirect what’s happening to Little Falls, create a different vision that’s more sustainable, diverse, eco-friendly, employee-friendly, and takes into account the needs of all citizens, not just those with money and cars. We can create a community that plays on its strengths, rather than trying to be like every other community.

And, make no mistake, Little Falls does have strengths. The City Council and former City Administrator, Rich Carlson, worked diligently to encourage local business owners to restore their historic buildings. They’ve encouraged citizens to maintain and be proud of their historic homes. The City has also created several fabulous parks along the river, giving access to the natural feature that first drew people to this area. When compared to our closest large cities, Brainerd/Baxter and St. Cloud, Little Falls has a long and rich history, which is a draw for tourists, who benefit our economy in many ways. People say our community is pretty, and that’s a good thing.

But I didn’t start this diatribe to in the hopes that we’d rest on our laurels. We’ve got work to do in overcoming our weaknesses. We could start by gathering opinions from people in the community who aren’t the typical planners and leaders, the ones who sit on every committee known to man. There are creative people in this community, and people who are complainers who have justifiable reasons for their complaints. How about we listen to them for a change and see if they have some solutions? How about we follow some of the community plans we’ve paid hefty money for in the past, rather than shove them on a shelf to gather dust? How about we come up with a solid plan and stick to it, instead of handing out conditional use permits and variances to every Tom, Dick and Harry who comes along?

We need to decide whether our vision for the future of Little Falls has room for Wal-Mart. Maybe it does. If so, we can watch how the company treats our local employees and customers and hold its feet to the fire if it takes advantage of our community. Thus far, Wal-Mart has shown that it will contribute to local nonprofits and community projects. It’s being a good neighbor in this respect. Can all of our local businesses say the same?

If our vision of Little Falls is to move away from homogenization and giant chain businesses like Wal-Mart, how do we change things? We need to learn what it means to compete. Wal-Mart can’t do everything. Local businesses need to alter their practices in consideration of this simple fact. Offer goods that Wal-Mart doesn’t carry (The Gum Drop Tree and the bead store downtown are shining examples), provide excellent customer service that is more in-depth than Wal-Mart can give (like Pap’s Sport Shop), and pay decent wages to your employees. If workers can make a living wage doing interesting work elsewhere, they’re not going to work at Wal-Mart.

Capiche?

Thus ends this series, although community development is never far from this fishy mind.

Tipping my shiny fins your way,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel

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I last left off this series by discussing how local businesses may be inadvertently encouraging the success of Wal-Mart. To refresh your memory, the question under discussion is “Under what circumstances does having a Wal-Mart seem like a good idea?”

Now lets look at the vision Little Falls has of itself and see if there are contributing factors.

Quick, without thinking, what is the economy of Little Falls based on? If you answered agriculture and industry, you’re correct on one score. That is precisely what most everyone in this area says the economy is based on. Have you noticed that most family farms have been replaced by a few large corporate farms? Have you noticed that the creameries in Little Falls are gone? We have a couple of feed stores, sure, but how much of our economy is truly based on farming anymore?

Now let’s look at industry. Well, we do have a few big ones. There are the boat works, Larson and Crestliner. We have some machine shops, the ethanol plant, IWCO, the Little Falls Granite Works . . . hmm . . . if you were to add up all of the people employed by businesses typically classified as industry, how many people would that be? Enough to say that our economy is based on industry?

Industry is fine as far as it goes, but when a local economy places great stock in one or two large industries and those industries suddenly see a down-turn, there goes the economy. Small businesses are actually the saving grace of the economy and they employ more people in aggregate in Minnesota than large businesses do. It took me only a few keystrokes to find this information online, so this is fairly common knowledge, yet it seems that Little Falls doesn’t exactly act on this knowledge when it comes to economic development.

Community Development of Morrison County, an organization which has its office in Little Falls, concentrates almost exclusively on trying to attract big industries to the city. Community planners trip all over themselves in order to land the big fish, yet shrug and walk away from individuals who express an interest in starting small businesses. The City has no formal way to deal with or keep track of home businesses, which have exploded in popularity with the internet. (I’m not indicating that the City should micro-manage home businesses or place ridiculous restrictions on them or tax them into oblivion. Quite the contrary. There are plenty of state and federal laws and local zoning ordinances for home-based businesses to follow. I’m merely passing along the suggestion of a friend that there be some sort of registry of home businesses kept by the City, with a nominal fee to cover the cost of the registry.) How many home-based businesses are already employing people in the City? How much money are these businesses bringing into our economy? Wouldn’t that be interesting to know?

Speaking of the internet, if you’re reading this, you are assuredly aware of how the internet has changed our lives. We are now in the Information Age (rather than the Industrial Age), yet the City seems to have missed the memo on this. As the county seat, Little Falls should have been the first city in the area to offer internet access to residents, but it wasn’t. Upsala was. (Go, Upsala!) In fact, the City does not yet have its own website, although I’ve heard that one is in the works. Come on, people! You’ve got at least ten years of catching up to do on this account. If you want to get up to speed quickly, go talk to Ron Kresha of Atomic Learning. That guy’s got technical know-how and creativity oozing from his pores.

So, here Little Falls is, missing the boat because we still think our economy is running on ag and industry. We don’t seem to have the will or creativity or vision to yank ourselves out of this hole. If we did, we might be able to attract or create businesses that would be viable for our local economy in terms of paying living wages, life satisfaction, keeping our brightest young people in the community, and supporting our infrastructure, along with a myriad of other benefits. Diversification – not putting all our eggs in one basket – that’s the answer.

Our vision of our city is not the only thing preventing the development of innovative businesses of all sizes. We also have issues in dealing with competition. In short, existing businesses don’t want any, even though competition is a great prod in improving business practices. It’s not just existing businesses that actively work to keep competition out, but other organizations involved with community development as well. In seeking the cooperation of existing businesses, these organizations tend to cater to them, and thus don’t encourage competition. Mustn’t step on anyone’s toes, even if it works to the detriment of the community as a whole.

What local businesses must realize is that we no longer live in a world where the only competition out there is the shop down the street. With the internet, businesses everywhere are now competing on a world-wide level. That certainly increases the market, doesn’t it? With an internet connection and a credit card, consumers can shop wherever they like and – this is key – they don’t owe local businesses anything. Not one red cent. Local businesses have to earn their customers’ business. Those are the breaks, kid. Better get used to it.

I seem to have rambled a bit with this post, but creativity and vision are important to this discussion, as is the willingness to deal with competition. All are risky activities and most of us are pretty adverse to risk. Having a Wal-Mart, rather than building an economy based on a wide variety of businesses, is the easy route to take. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Going googly-eyed,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel

(To be continued.)

Since Richard Carlson left his job as City Administrator for Little Falls on May 25, 2007, the City has been shopping for someone to replace him. The City Council has to find someone who can at least equal Carlson’s substantial administrative skills. No small task, that.

The Council has found three potential candidates. Two were named in the August 26, 2007, issue of the Morrison County Record. They are Dan Coughlin, who is currently serving as the City Admin for Richmond, MN, and Steven Robertson, City Admin for Plainview. The Record reported that “the third candidate has not give permission for his name to be released.”

We could read several things into why the third candidate has not given permission for his identity to be known. Perhaps the Record couldn’t get ahold of him before press time. Perhaps the man has not made his job search known to his current employer and doesn’t want to blow his cover. Or, perhaps the guy is scared all of the fine citizens of Little Falls are going to do a background check on him before he gets here.

You see, there were supposed to be a couple of “Meet the Candidate” sessions in Little Falls, one on August 28, 2007, and one on September 4, 2007. According to the Record online, the session for tomorrow has been canceled, no reason given. In an editorial in last week’s Record, it was suggested that citizens of Little Falls come out in force to look over these candidates and let City Council members know who they liked. The editorial took a turn toward the cloak and dagger with this:

“As the candidates talk about their backgrounds, they may well trigger a connection with a citizen who knows somebody from the applicant’s past. We live in an interconnected world, and friends and family of Little Falls residents, as with all communities, are scattered across the globe.

A call to that friend or family member may provide invaluable feedback to the community. Perhaps the call will reveal where a candidate has exaggerated the success of a particular program. Maybe it will be learned that the candidate is of questionable character. Or hopefully, the unofficial, off-the-cuff call will reaffirm a positive first impression.

What’s important to understand, however, is that, even though the City Council will make the final decision, every resident has a responsibility to help city government work as best it can. One way any citizen can help is by checking within their own circle so the council can get as complete a picture as possible.” (MC Record, August 19, 2007)

You’d have to be a person with pretty thick skin to come into a community with such an open amount of suspicion. It remains to be seen how the whole situation will shake out.

Yours gillfully,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel

It jumped right out at me.  Who could miss it?  From the wording, it looked as though people entering Little Falls had a shot at scoring some drugs.  Quite unfortunate, in my opinion.  Here was the headline on the front page of this week’s Morrison County Record:

Crack found on CR 76 bridge heading into Little Falls

Not “Structural crack found.”  Not “Crack found in . . . .”  Nope.  “Crack found on . . . .”  Sounds like fodder for Jay Leno’s Headlines segment.

As if that wasn’t enough, here’s a headline from the Court and Crimes section of the same paper:

Flensburger arrested for false calls*

I thought, hmm, who is this man called Flensburger?  I read the article and discovered that the man’s name is not Flensburger at all.  Ohhh, I get it.  Flensburger is a fancy way of saying “a resident of Flensburg.”  Not in all my years as a Morrison County resident have I ever heard someone from Flensburg called a Flensburger.  You know, it sounds like a fancy hamburger, doesn’t it?  Maybe the good folks of Flensburg should whip something up and market it.

Blissfully blowing bubbles up to the surface,

P.F.A. Pickerel

*(You’ll not find the same headline for the story online as the one that appeared in the actual newspaper.  Sometimes it pays to wait for the paper edition.)

Have you paid attention to what’s happening at the old Wal-Mart store on the east side of Little Falls?  It’s been painted a nice woodsy light green with a darker green stripe as accent.  Don’t feel bad if you haven’t noticed.  The new stoplights direct you in the opposite direction, toward the new Wal-Mart, so if you’re paying attention to traffic (as you should be), you’re bound to miss it.  Let the guessing begin as to what’s going to move in.  My bets are on a sporting goods store.

Angling for a line,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel

A lunar eclipse has been scheduled for tonight. If God sees fit to move the clouds, those in Central Daylight Time can see the show starting at 3:51 a.m. Total eclipse begins at 4:52 a.m. and ends at 6:22 a.m. You early risers will have a good show. I, for one, will probably still be asleep. If only these things were scheduled for a more convenient time. [Sigh.] – P.F.A.P.

As a young girl I routinely attended church with my mother.  I was often frightened by the minister’s sermons because he portrayed God as a punishing and severe man.  As I grew into my early teens it occurred to me that his description of God was a mirror image of himself.  I was intrigued; from that day forward I made a point of paying careful attention to how individuals characterize God. What I have found is that, more often than not, their descriptions of God and his viewpoints often mirrored their own.  What was even more evident was that those who pushed their beliefs the hardest not only believed that God was created in their image, but that everyone should be molded in their likeness as well.

No where was this more glaring and evident than in Mary Larson’s letter to editor regarding the Franciscan Sisters participation in Humane Borders. Her letter seethes with contempt for the illegal immigrants. She assumes that God not only condones her hate but that he shares it. Likewise, she assumes that illegal immigrants are dying in the desert because God wants them to die…just like she does.

Mary Larson’s letter said that Jesus Christ is not an illegal immigrant… but let’s do the math, Jesus Christ wasn’t exactly born on American soil, and he doesn’t have a passport or a green card. Items that he may never be eligible for given his well documented status as a convicted criminal of Middle Eastern descent, who has been seen with prostitutes and has first hand experience with the death penalty.  

Or could Mary Larson be suggesting that Christ wouldn’t be subject to the ethnic borders of common men, if so, why not?  Maybe ….because borders are an institution of man that don’t really exist. Larson wrote, if God intended the illegal’s to have water he’d flood the desert. Yet the same argument could be made about borders; If God intended earth to have borders he would have drawn brightly colored lines that cordoned off countries like Mexico.

Larson went on to write, “When they get here they want rights.” Here she seems to suggest that the presence of illegal immigrants would somehow be more palatable if they would refrain from claiming entitlement to basic human rights.  But, as American’s do we not believe that basic human rights reflect the unalienable Rights of all men, Rights not granted by any one government but those bestowed upon man by God?  

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Declaration of Independence

While our country invests vast resources into border security, these solutions all focus on single individuals and groups of people. Are these not symptoms of a greater problem rather than the problem itself?  Does the true source of the problem not lay within their government, hence the solution? We lay tremendous responsibility at the feet of the world’s hungry and oppressed. While our attention is focused on these individuals and how their needs may infringe upon our comforts, we have forgotten entirely the purpose and responsibility of all governments. Thomas Jefferson put it best when he wrote:

The purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety and happiness. Government exists for the interests of the governed, not for the governors.”

In his commencement address at the American University John F. Kennedy laid out his ideologies on foreign and domestic policy, while this only serves to represent one mans view, I can’t but help but find his overall strategy entirely relevant not only to today’s dilemma’s but also in this instance.  

But wherever we are, we must all, in our daily lives, live up to the age-old faith that peace and freedom walk together. In too many of our cities today, the peace is not secure because freedom is incomplete.” (John F. Kennedy, June 10, 1963, American University speech)

“And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights — the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation – the right to breathe air as nature provided it — the right of future generations to a healthy existence?” (John F. Kennedy, June 10, 1963, American University speech)

Has it not always been more or less true to say that throughout history man’s migration has been born out of need, while in contrast corporate and capitolistic interests migrate out of greed?

Mary Larson goes on to tell the Sisters, “you should be teaching our little ones to have faith, hope and love”. It is truly unfortunate that Mary Larson cannot see that this has already been done.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God, (Matthew 5.9)

Kindred Spirit, Brooke Trout        

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