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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