Tragedy of the Commons.

I was at the Diamond Run Mall the other day. I passed one yet-to-be-filled storefront after another, and I left disenchanted over the lack of shopping options in the Rutland area. Then, as I looked west across Route 7, to the verdant, rolling hills and lush pastures, I was suddenly re-enchanted. Soon, the Rutland Commons would abet my insatiable need to buy.

If I looked hard enough, I could see it all before me: In that pasture over there, a beautifully paved parking lot unfolded before a stately Barnes & Noble. And by that stream, the towering pillars of a Best Buy stretched upward in majestic splendor; it’s sign a golden beacon, a glowing pronouncement of salvation and discount retail treasures.

Can’t you see it?

News of the proposed Rutland Commons consumerarium has not sat well with me. It is an unfortunate step away from Vermont’s local first ethic, and yet another attack on small-town culture. This project is just more of the cart-before-the-horse thinking that has plagued our community for years. The belief that “if you build it, they will come,” is deluded and shortsighted. The real problem in Rutland is not a lack of culture or places to shop; it’s a lack of industry. People follow jobs, not TGI Fridays and Office Depots.

To be sure, John Kalish, the mastermind behind the Rutland Commons is right; the 200-plus jobs is a positive. But what kinds of jobs are we getting? Retail and foodservice—minimum wage employment. We should be looking for ways to bring higher paying jobs into the area. Maybe, Rutland should take a look at burgeoning cleantech and green industries, and find ways to create green-collar jobs that utilize both skilled and professional labor.

Kalish’s research alleges that the area remains “underserved” by current shopping options. What about the Diamond Run Mall? Did Kalish’s research point out that, at over a decade in, it has never been filled to capacity? We built it, and they didn’t come. That should say something about the potential success of his project. While the DRM’s struggle to attain mediocrity speaks to an overall decline in the shopping mall model nationwide, empirical evidence would suggest that there is not much of a market for a shopping Mecca in Rutland. Our mall doesn’t even have a Gap. Doesn’t every mall have a Gap?

So the question remains: Is the Rutland Commons even necessary? The environmental impact of the sprawl created by a potential white elephant troubles me greatly. I’m not being a tree-hugger or hiding behind Act 250, I’m simply questioning the need to build something that could very well end up vacant in a few years. Route 7 looks bad enough without creating a garish box store ghost town (think, the Eddy House with a Cinnabon).

And let’s not forget the negative impact this project will have on our downtown. I commend Mayor Louras’ skepticism of the Commons, (give ‘em hell, Chris), and his continued concern for the downtown merchants. People who think this project will benefit the downtown are living a fantasy. If all your shopping and dining needs are met at the Commons, then what will draw people downtown? The shopping carts?

I could spend this entire column pointing out the economic and environmental problems created by the Commons, but let’s make this issue a bit more meta. Let’s talk about the name itself. Rutland Commons. Historically, “commons” refers to a green space where the community gathers. Over time, the word has been imbued with certain commercial connotations, but at its heart, it is denotes an open community space. Think of the village greens that are ubiquitous throughout New England. Those are commons. How many of them have a Chili’s (though, it does sound like something New Hampshire might try). The decision to call the Rutland Commons the Rutland Commons is just slick marketing. Face it, guys; it’s just a shopping plaza with trees.

It’s time we reappropriated the word.

Recently, the Farm to City Group—a freethinking collective of locals with loose ties to the Rutland Partnership—acquired use of the long-vacant green space on the corner of Wales and Washington Streets. (Full disclosure: I am a member of this group). Thanks to the generosity of the Rutland Masonic Building, the green now may be used as a community gathering space, which we have named Wales Street Commons at the Masonic Corner.

Our Commons is another step forward in our efforts to the engage people in the local—a concrete (figuratively) manifestation of the Think Local. Buy Local. Be Local. ethic, which is an essential component to the success of any small town economy. In the future, look for live music, children’s activities, and a number of other exciting and interesting events we have planned for our green.

And when the Rutland Commons does arrive, dazzling us with Wonderbread sprawl and conspicuous consumption, try not to forget the role you play in our local community.

(originally published in The Rutland Herald 9/26/08)


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