Some things don't fit in a big box 

A few thoughts on Walmart, the attractiveness of Savannah residents and supporting local business

The new building doesn't really stand out from the Southside's tradition of sprawl, and there are no signs announcing the imminent arrival of a new business opening soon, despite how far along the exterior work has progressed.

The announcement heralding the city's newest Walmart Supercenter, opening early next year across from Savannah Mall - ironically in the location of an abandoned Walmart which closed in 2002 - was surprising for a couple of reasons:

First, because there are already seven of the big box behemoths in the Savannah area, six of which are Supercenters; and, second, by the absence of a modicum of the public outrage generated in some circles by plans for a McDonald's on Broughton Street.

The devotees of non-corporate eating establishments who cried foul at the pillaging of the historic district (despite the fact that there are already several chains and franchises along the Broughton corridor) have lifted nary a finger to oppose the further expansion of the biggest of the big box stores.

Maybe no one cares because the area is far from a pristine wilderness. If we can endure several Walmarts in a 10 or 15 mile area, what is the harm in one more? How many Walmarts do we need in a 10-15 mile area?

There wasn't a ticker-tape parade welcoming the new store, but I'm sure there were some congratulatory handshakes.

The announcement said there would be a hiring center set up for applicants interested in one of the 250 new jobs created. But this is hardly the economic development we should be celebrating.

It's no secret that most, if not all, of Walmart's goods are produced overseas and hence promote the trade deficit that's decimated our manufacturing base, but let's focus on the local impact.

According to one study, the impact of a new Walmart is actually a net loss of 150 jobs. It creates jobs the first year, but as other local businesses begin to lay off employees or shut down because of declining revenue, the positive swings to a negative.

The jobs created also create downward pressure on wages because the jobs that survive pay less.

There's also the amount of money a business puts back into the local economy. A big box store will return about 16 percent of its revenue back into the local economy in the form of wages, services, etc. A local business will put somewhere between 25 and 38 percent, depending on the sector.

If ten percent of our collective spending was shifted to locally owned establishments, it would result in tens of millions of extra dollars per year in the local economy. That's a meaningful component in poverty reduction, job creation, quality of life, etc.

There are plenty of scary numbers about Walmart - how many of their employees receive taxpayer subsidized food stamps or Medicaid, or how much of the national gross domestic product the corporation's sales represent.

But now we'll turn to a completely unrelated number - how good looking Savannahians are according to a recent reader survey conducted by Travel & Leisure.

Savannah is number three in the country for the attractiveness of its residents, according to the magazine's readers.

We won't delve into the politics of how these things are tabulated, but I will note that we were again beaten by our old rival Charleston, who placed first in the beauty portion of the contest.

Although Savannah/Charleston comparisons might continue ad infinitum, one way that Savannah seems to be winning is the number of new locally owned businesses downtown.

If Broughton and King Streets go head to head (which happens regularly on travel forum websites), there are far fewer brand stores on Broughton. Some people view that as a detractor, but to those people, I say, go to Charleston - it's like a mall with no roof.

Even in a down economy, small business here has thrived over the past few months. Last weekend, a new store called Wooden Sheep opened.

"We want to promote the idea of sustainability, how you can create environments that are enjoyable and successful built from reclaimed materials," explains co-owner Eric Hallworth.

The small shop on East Liberty is still a work in progress. Among the current selections are bags, jewelry, dog collars, and a variety of other handmade items, featuring in-house designs as well as creations made by other local artists.

"We use this wood to make displays," says Hallworth, standing next to a pile of wood he and business partner Ben Mattern have gathered. "From those scraps we can make bracelets, and from the scraps of those we make rings, and then the saw dust, we have someone who helps us make paper out of cedar and mahogany scraps."

A few blocks away on Wright Square, the boutique Arc opened last month. Owner Kyle Hinton, a SCAD alum who spent the last several years in New York, decided to return to Savannah to open the shop, which is a study in curation.

"I was working in Fashion Advertising," Hinton says. "I just came back to pursue the business venture."

Besides an array of stylish vintage clothing and sunglasses, the shop carries boots, sketchbooks and a variety of unique skin care and shaving products.

"It's always going to change," says Hinton. "That's what interests me about something like this. This time next year it could be something totally different based on what we have in stock or whatever customers are buying."

Even beyond the boundaries of the Landmark Historic District there has been tremendous business growth lately, like the explosion of excellent new restaurants in Thomas Square that have ‘green' in their name (The Green Truck Pub, Sammy Green's, Butterhead Greens) all of which are well worth a visit.

There's also the new coffee roaster called Perc on Desoto Avenue in the Starland district that joins the growing number of businesses there.

As Savannah continues to rise in prominence as a destination, we'll only become more attractive for chains and big box retailers.

Could we end up in the same plight as Austin, whose "Keep Austin Weird" campaign became a rallying cry for local business supporters when the city rose from liberal Texas enclave to the more affluent hipster-magnet status?

Not if we support the variety of local businesses we already have - otherwise, we might as well just all give up and move to Charleston.

I hear it's nice there, but personally, I prefer Savannah.


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Patrick Rodgers

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