This Generican Life.

Here we go again.

Last week, the Rutland Commons project moved a step closer to reality when it received Act 250 approval. That some people still think the Commons is a good idea is utterly amazing to me. The box store model—like the shopping mall before it—is broken. By now, we all know the “buy local” refrain—money spent here stays here; it’s that simple. However, my disapproval of this project goes much deeper than my localista leanings.

(And it’s not a Rutland Town thing, either. Despite what the Select Board may think, I am not secretly plotting against them. My columns do not contain coded instructions to the underground cabal that is working on the Merger (we have a Facebook group for that).)

Make no mistake; if this project were in Rutland City, my opposition would be even stronger. I know all the pros—jobs, tax revenue, an Olive Garden. In the short-term, these are all plusses (free breadsticks!). It’s the long-term impact of the Commons, however, that troubles me.
Recently, I took a drive down to Florida. Roundtrip, I traveled about 3,000 miles. In that span, I saw too many of the plastic, sprawling, Wonderbread communities that I hope Rutland will never become. Even when I reached my destination of Naples, I witnessed the impact unchecked growth and rampant consumerism has on local economies, local attitudes, and the local culture (to say nothing environmental concerns).

In Naples, the strip mall is part of the natural ecosystem. While the structures are ubiquitous, hardly any of them are at full occupancy. This speaks to the greater issue of a national decline in year-to-year retail sales for national chains versus independent stores. In other words, the boxes are tanking while the independents are on the rebound. To be sure, no one is thriving right now (except for liquor, guns, and churches, which is presents an entirely different set of problems). Nonetheless, independent retailers are fairing better nationally compared to their chain store competitors.

This entire Commons scheme looks like it was cooked up inside a vacuum. Despite whatever research the developers may have conducted, it does not take the current economic situation into account (unless they’re planning on opening a Bread Crusts, Bindles & Beyond). Reaching 50% occupancy—which is the threshold at which construction will begin—is likely; however, it is doubtful that they will ever get the other fifty.

Indeed, the current state of the Diamond Run Mall and the persistent rumors about Dick’s and Michael’s potential departures only breeds more skepticism about the success of the Commons. In the face of such uncertainty, can Mr. Kalish honestly say that this project is in the best interest of Rutland’s economic future? Can’t we do better?

With all the criticism heaped upon Mayor Louras and the Partnership for the empty downtown storefronts (which, I might add, at an 86% occupancy rate for first-floor retail spaces, is right in line with the national average), I wonder if Mr. Kalish and the Rutland Town Select Board will be as proactive as the City is when dealing with the inevitable albatross of a box store ghost town.

This all may sound negative, but I feel it is in the community’s best interest to voice a strong objection to this project. I am not hoping for it to fail, I am hoping it never happens at all. To think that the Commons is some kind of silver bullet to the area’s woes is just wrongheaded. If Mr. Rhodes honestly believes that this is the “smartest and greatest thing ever to happen to Rutland Town,” I’ve got a bridge I’d love to sell him. (I also have some magic beans he might be interested in).

Maybe, it’s me. Maybe, I just don’t get the appeal of box store culture. To me, it seems like incredibly vapid and impersonal. It’s a culture that promotes homogeneity and thoughtless consumption as a preferable substitute to unique and authentic experiences. At its root, this is an existential matter, which I believe trumps any possible economic benefit.

A critique this abstract may be easy for some people to dismiss, but in a community that has always had self-esteem and identity issues, the impact of prefab culture on our collective psyche is worth analyzing. These businesses reduce shopping and dining experiences to impulsive, thoughtless acts where one never considers where a product is made or who the person is behind the counter not to mention whether or not you even need that product in the first place (I’m looking at you, ShamWow).

Is this really what we want? I’ve done my share of traveling. I’ve seen the wave of “Generica” that has swept away local cultures and economies. Local coffee shops, books stores, restaurants—in some parts of the country these are an endangered species, but in our community, we have them in spades. We should be proud of this fact. We should do whatever we can to support what we already have and foster new local businesses. To think that any community would willingly succumb to the box store trend is anathema to me.

I know I’ve covered this subject in the past, but I feel the need to revisit it because I believe that we can change this culture. Our community cannot and should abide the erosion of the local for cheap clothes and chicken wings. Call me anti-business, protectionist, or whatever else you want. Communities like ours need to draw a line in the sand. We need to show the rest of the country that we can survive (and even succeed) without bowing down to the banal, plastic lifestyle currently being hawked as culture and experience.

The fact that this project is still on the table shows how out of step some people are with the real future (and past) of our community. This is shortsighted economic development achieved at the cost of our local soul. If you want to see real solutions for long-term growth in the Rutland area, check out the impressive work organizations like the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link are doing. Projects like the Food Hub and the incubator farm are both economically viable and maintain the character and integrity of our natural landscape and rural agricultural heritage. The process may take a bit longer, but the end result will be a sustainable, viable, and equitable economic, environmental, cultural future for our community.

originally published in the Rutland Herald 3/19/09)

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