What is a Big Box?

For all the talk about Big Boxes in this column and in the larger battle to oppose Newman Development Group’s plans to build a 170,000 square foot (4 acre) Lowe’s, and all the talk about the problems with these Big Boxes, there has been a lot less talk about what a Big Box is.

In an effort to explain exactly what it is that we’re fighting so hard to stop and why this fight is so important, I thought it might be helpful to define Big Boxes and distinguish them from other big buildings.

That’s the key starting point: a Big Box is not merely a big building. There are plenty of big buildings in this community that are not Big Boxes: schools, churches, medical facilities, the County Courthouse, and the former Skilled Nursing Facility all come to mind. There are many other big buildings that I would welcome into this community, including office buildings, professional centers, light industries, a recreation center, and so forth.

The difference is that a Big Box is a big building that has other qualities. First, a Big Box is a retail building. More than that, it is a “category killer,” whose business plan is to drive smaller and local businesses out of business and whose business model is to do this by squeezing every penny out of manufacturers, distributors, and employees.

These are not the qualities of a good neighbor, particularly in a small town with a successful local economy. These are also not the qualities of a good employer. These are only the qualities of a good place to save a few pennies, provided you ignore all the costs – to workers, competitors, and communities – of those savings.

Second, a Big Box is not a foundation for economic development. Because the jobs it provides pay a family-supporting wage only to a small number of managers and because most of the newly created jobs come at the expense of generally better-paying and more stable jobs lost at locally-owned businesses, Big Boxes do not increase the level of disposable income available in a community. Neither do Big Boxes attract the type of workforce or contribute to the type of community that might draw better jobs.

Third, a Big Box places more demands on local infrastructure than it returns through benefits to the community. This is most true of the road infrastructure. Big Box retail depends entirely on large traffic volumes. This type of “development” only becomes viable when certain levels of traffic are achieved, with each new Big Box contributing to escalating traffic volumes.

The result is the type of gridlock now seen on Route 20A. The solution, which might be provided in our life time, is multi-million dollar, taxpayer-funded road “improvements” that erode community character and that invite additional retail development. This isn’t hyperbole; this is Henrietta.

Fourth, Big Boxes weaken both “host” and surrounding communities. They create an unhealthful feast or traffic and sprawl in host communities while bleeding jobs, traffic, and vitality out of surrounding communities. These types of asymmetries are already abundantly clear in Livingston County.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly in a community with the many assets of Geneseo, Big Boxes destroy the sense of place and time and history that define us and that draw us together and that make this such a special place to live and work and raise a family. This character is what makes Geneseo what it is.

We are all familiar with the sprawling, car-dependent, chain store landscape found in too much of this beautiful country. We all conjure up similar images when we hear references to Henrietta and Victor and West Ridge Road. These are the landscapes that Big Boxes have made.

Geneseo is fortunate to host a college and the county government. Though not without their costs, these big businesses and big buildings are central to the vitality of our small town. The jobs they provide, the businesses they attract, the quality of life they contribute make Geneseo work. Big Boxes are another story. With them, the costs – in every sense of the term – far outweigh the benefits.

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