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Commentary: Wal-Mart Needs to Answer Questions about Allegany Super Center

By Mike Blumenthal

Allegany, NY – When at a recent Allegany Town Planning Board meeting listening to Wal-Marts' preliminary plan for expansion, I was asked if I was opposed to the Wal-Mart proposal to build an additional 102,000 square feet of space to house groceries. My response was that I was in favor of community development that fostered community.

Exactly what does that mean? I am in favor of maintaining our rural way of life; I am in favor of having a business climate in which small business operators can survive and thrive; I am in favor of maintaining a balance and respect for our natural surroundings; I am in favor of having jobs that pay a living wage so that workers can meet their monthly budget and retirement needs; I am in favor of jobs that offer health insurance.

Why do I want these things?

Because I want a sustainable community, a community that offers its residents a quality of life and leisure that is meaningful and fair.

Businesses build in a community with the express permission of that community. The business needs what the community has to offer: good roads, utilities, sewers, educated workers, a health care system. As a community we have always offered a certain quid pro quo for the right of businesses to make their profit here: Respect our laws, respect our citizens, respect our environment and we will allow you to make a profit. The reason for this is that the ultimate goal of our community should be the greatest good to the greatest number of its residents. So the answer to the question "Am I against Wal-Mart developing a huge grocery store" is: if Wal-Mart can demonstrate that they will provide living wages, are not coming to town to put other hard working businesses out of business, do provide reasonable health care for their workers, won t disrespect our laws and will contribute to our rural way of life, they are welcome. Otherwise, they should not develop here.

These standards for a livable community should be the standards for any development. Sometimes compromise is necessary as the gains to the community in one area may be offset by losses in other. For example we might accept more traffic congestion if it meant a gain of 300 living wage jobs and an environment where our small businesses could fairly compete. These are the questions that the planning process is meant to ask of any new development.

Our government officials are charged with taking a hard look at any new development to see whether it fits our plans for the future and respects our environmental laws. They are tasked with allowing the citizenry to be actively engaged in that process and to allow them to raise these and other issues in regards to development. That is as it should be.

Wal-Mart should be held to these same standards. But the burden of proof is to a large extent on them. They need to clearly demonstrate that they can meet these community standards and they need to do so while respecting our community and its leaders.

There are a number of hard questions that need to be asked. If Wal-Mart adds one hundred thousand square feet of grocery space won t it be driving other grocery stores out of business? If that occurs will it lead to significant displacements of workers with decent benefits? Will it lead to abandonment of other properties? Will this development lead to the destruction of communities like Park Street that are still vibrant despite the past ten years of neighboring development? What will State Street be like to drive down, once Wal-Mart adds 50% more cars to the mix? Will our health care system and county welfare system be further stressed by increased utilization of their services by under paid workers without healthcare insurance? Will our downtowns in Allegany and Olean continue to deteriorate?

I do not know the answers to the above questions, but they need to be asked. They need to be honestly answered before I can say whether I am in favor of or oppose a Wal-Mart building such a large grocery store. These are questions that every citizen of our town needs to ask, has a right to ask, should ask and should expect to be answered.

Listener-Commentator Mike Blumenthal is a long-time resident of Allegany.