Category Archives: Smart Growth

Goldilocks and the Two Bears

There are at least 92 Wal-Mart’s and 51 Lowe’s in New York State. Yet, as far as I have been able to determine, there are only three communities similar in size and circumstances to Geneseo which host both of these Big Boxes.

Many places host both a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s, often across the street from one another. They go together, the latter following the former as part of the sprawling homogenization of the American landscape. However, most of these places are large suburbs, such as Henrietta, Greece, Victor, or Amherst, or medium-sized cities, from Ithaca to Canandaigua to Elmira, Binghamton, and Schenectady.

The three New York communities most comparable to Geneseo – Norwich, Oneida, and Oneonta – represent the best opportunity to look into our future and see what a Lowe’s in Geneseo might mean for future retail development. What happens to a small town when a Wal-Mart is joined by a Lowe’s?

Does this combination satisfy the market, creating just the right amount of retail development (the Goldilocks scenario) or does the opening of the Big Box home improvement retailer near a Wal-Mart contribute to a new wave of chain stores that gobble up open space and small business (the two bears)?

Armed with Google Maps, Wikipedia, and other handy search tools, I have set out to answer these questions.

My criteria for communities comparable to Geneseo is that they be located in a primarily rural county, that they be more than 20 miles away from any city or any community that might be described as a suburb of a larger city, that they be the “market center” of their county, and that the county be comparable in size to ours.

By these criteria, communities somewhat similar to ours (and communities from which we can still learn something), such as Glen Falls, Ogdensburg, Oswego, Canandaigua, and Auburn did not make the cut, mostly because their home counties have multiple market towns or are far larger than Livingston County.

Norwich, a city of 7,500 and a town of an additional 4,000, is the county seat of Chenango County. There are no other large town or villages in the county, which has 52,000 residents, and no other communities that host a big box. The nearest city is Binghamton, 40 miles to the southwest.

Despite its small size, Norwich hosts an array of chain retailers comparable to Geneseo’s, including Super Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Sears, Peebles, Tractor Supply, Fashion Bug, Sherwin Williams, Eckerd, and Rite Aid, as well as a full complement of chain fast food and auto parts stores. Its Lowe’s, a smaller 122,000 square foot (compared to the 170,000 store proposed here), opened in fall, 2006.

According to a local official with whom I spoke, the opening of the Super Wal-Mart forced the closing of grocery stores in two neighboring towns. The opening of Lowe’s was followed by the closing of a long-time hardware store, a local institution in Norwich.

A local lumber yard is hanging in there, though business is down and its closing “would not come as a surprise.” On top of all this, rumors are flying that Target is interested in the large parcel adjacent to Lowe’s. New, smaller chain businesses have already opened.

Oneida, which was discussed last year, is a city of 11,000 in Madison County, which has a population of 69,000. Though Wampsville is the county seat, Oneida is the undisputed market center and home to the only Big Boxes in the county. It is a former manufacturing center, whose principal industries now are gambling and retail.

The Turning Stone Casino is located north of the mostly hollow town center, just off the Thruway, while retail sprawls to the west. The Five Corners area hosts Super Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Sears, Tractor Supply, and numerous smaller chains. Big Lots, Dollar Tree, Fashion Bug, and Rite Aid are also found in Oneida. Their Lowe’s, which opened just over a year ago, is 147,000 square feet, including the garden center.

Though it is too soon to know the full effect Lowe’s will have on subsequent retail development in Oneida, an article in this Tuesday’s Syracuse Post-Standard provides an early clue. The developer of the Lowe’s is now proposing a five-store retail plaza right next to it, to host national chain stores.

Oneonta is a city of 13,000 and a town of 5,000 in Otsego County, which has a population of 62,000. It is home to a SUNY campus, Hartwick College, and all of the county’s big boxes. It is located halfway between Binghamton and Schenectady, the largest cities in the area. There are no other large communities in the county, whose seat is Cooperstown.

For a community of its size and circumstances, Oneonta is host to a truly staggering range of chain retailers, including Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Kmart (now closed), Steve & Barry’s (an 82,000 square foot chain clothing store that replaced Kmart), JC Penney, Sears, Tractor Supply, Bath & Body Works, Bed Bath & Beyond, Foot Locker, Office Max, Fashion Bug, Radio Shack, FYE, GNC, Borders, Waldenbooks, Sherwin Williams, Rite Aid, and Eckerd. More chains are on the way in this very active retail market.

What do we learn from this exercise? Most importantly, that there are few New York communities like Geneseo with a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s. We also learn that Lowe’s sets a precedent that attracts more chain retail development to host communities, even in small towns and small counties.

Just as Lowe’s follows Wal-Mart, the communities whose Lowe’s have been opened the longest host the most retail sprawl and experience a second wave of retail development. That the Lowe’s proposed for Geneseo is significantly larger than in comparable communities suggests a stronger possible pull for follow-on retailers.

I should also point out that median family income in Livingston County is $50,513, considerably higher than in Chenango County ($39,711), Madison County ($47,889), or Otsego County ($41,110).

Considered in conjunction with the prominent presence of chain retailers in Geneseo and the availability of land in the Gateway, approving Newman’s PDD application promises plenty of sprawl in our future.

A final note: I think that understanding the precedent that would be set by the opening of a Lowe’s is the most important issue Geneseo faces in deciding whether or not to approve Lowe’s. It is that precedent that will determine how much additional traffic and sprawl we will face.

I invite readers to scrutinize the communities I have identified as comparable and the conclusions I have drawn from those communities and to suggest alternative communities and conclusions. Feel free to post a comment or send me an e-mail.

Stormy Weather in the Forecast

Clouds are building on the horizon. Beyond the horizon, there are reports of quite a storm. Though forecasts vary, in both the timing and the intensity of the storm, forecasters are coming into the agreement that we are in for some unpleasantness.

The elements of this storm are not wind, snow, and frigid temperatures, though all of those are also in the local forecast. The storm I’m concerned about is caused by the combination of increasing inflation, flat incomes, declining home values, and increasing gas prices.

Headlines about foreclosures, a credit crunch, weak holiday sales reports, and $3.00 gas are abundant. Read deeper than the headlines and you find forecasts of $100/barrel oil and $4/gallon gas in 2008. There are predictions that foreclosures will surge, the housing recession will deepen, and house prices will fall 20-30% before the market hits bottom in a few years.

All of this leads to talk of a recession, even a serious recession. Some forecasters think it has already begun. Others think it will begin by spring. More and more think it is unavoidable, a view few shared even a month or two ago.

As we all know, sometimes the forecasters are wrong. Sometimes the storm fizzles and we get an inch instead of a foot or rain instead of snow or it misses us entirely. The old joke goes that economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions.

Only time will tell. A few points are worth noting, however. The recent surge in retail development – in Geneseo and across the American landscape – happened because of an extended period of really favorable weather, a kind of economic global warming. As I’ve written about before, cheap gas and cheap money conspired to give us cheap prices in cheap buildings.

Those sunny days are over. Now we get to see just how much too much retail sprawl occurred. Expect slower retail growth and more vacancies. There are early signs of this in Geneseo, and the retail bubble has only started to deflate.

A more important point is that it is conditions like these that should remind us the value of smart growth. Growth that is planned, that provides for a mix of development, and that respects the character of the community in which it occurs is growth that is sustainable. No economy is recession-proof. However, an economy that supports local businesses, that understands that not every day is sunny, and that understands that people need places to make money and not just spend it, is an economy that will withstand the storm.