From Maple Street Co-op News, October/November 2002
Published by Maple Street Co-op, 37 Maple Street, Maleny Qld 4552, tel 5494 2088
The Slow Growth Revolution
by Lori Sturtz
The Slow Growth Movement is a grassroots effort that came about to stop urban sprawl in towns throughout the USA. Organisations such as Voters to Stop Sprawl and Sprawl-Busters are changing zoning ordinances and ejecting "big box" retail outlets from their communities. They are doing this with petitions, boycotts and pickets, and it is working. They are reclaiming their main streets and saving local businesses from being obliterated by big corporations.
Cooperation is becoming more important than competition - the cornerstone of capitalism. People are finally realising the social, economic and environmental damage that these corporations bring to their towns. They have become "accidental activists - people who never planned on fighting off a multinational corporation".
Small towns in America are finding out the hard way that saturated retail areas bring decay and deterioration - not the economic growth they were promised. National chains in the US as well as Australia benefit from sprawl-friendly zoning rules, receive tax breaks and get concessional rents at shopping centres at the expense of the small independent retailers. This sprawling growth causes community alienation, isolation and disconnection. The US National Trust for Historic Preservation defines "sprawl" as "poorly planned, low-density, auto-oriented development that spreads out from the centre of communities". This is a war of indoctrination, and we are accomplices in this destruction of our own communities. We need to convince everyone that there is real power in shopping locally.
Urban sprawl degrades the aesthetic and visual character of local communities. Large, impervious parking lots prevent rainwater from restoring groundwater. There is loss of open spaces, natural areas and wildlife. There is more dependence on cars as walkable downtown areas disappear, thus creating more traffic congestion. More jobs are lost than created, as local businesses fail. There is only a fixed amount of retail spending in small towns.
Maleny is lucky because we do not have to reclaim Maple Street. We just have to keep it in local hands, and each of us has that power. When you shop in town, you are "putting your money where your house is". This is a slogan used in Boulder, Colorado, where 150 local businesses pioneered a coalition, the Boulder Independent Business Alliance (BIBA). They even came up with a logo depicting two arrows forming a circle, which is displayed in all their windows. This is helping them retain their sense of community.
We need to see the futility and folly of trying to save a few dollars buying things elsewhere instead of locally. We also should really consider well what we buy and if we really need it, because landfills are full of unwanted purchases. It seems that "as our lives become emptier, our shelves become fuller".
In Oregon, a group of 200 people, organised by the Hood River Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG), linked arms and formed a circle around their downtown area to show community support for locally owned businesses as well as to show how big a proposed Wal-Mart (a giant supermarket with everything) would be. There's also the Main Street Defense Fund in Northfield, Minnesota, and Friends of Flagstaff's Future in Flagstaff, Arizona.
New Yorkers on Manhattan's Upper West Side gathered petition signatures to try to stop a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise which offered to pay double rent in order to replace a family-owned business, Sambas Deli. The group is planning protests, boycotts and continuous picketing when the KFC opens. They have succeeded in the past against a giant drug store chain. Here in Maleny, a Red Rooster chain outlet was closed after it failed to win over the town.
There are now more shopping malls than schools in America. It's a "shop till your community drops" mentality. In the face of this, at least 164 local groups have pressured developers to withdraw from their communities. Independent business alliances are forming all over the country. Local restaurants are banding together and lowering prices with group buying. A non-profit organisation, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), tracks these community efforts and produces an electronic newsletter, The Home Town Advantage Bulletin. A national network, the American Independent Business Alliance, was launched to support these groups.
Building community links in Australia
There have also been a few wins in recent years in Australia, notably in NSW with the Byron Bay community's rejection of a Club Med development proposal and Katoomba citizenry's resounding vote several years ago against McDonald's setting up shop in their town. Kerry Mumford, press officer for the Blue Mountains City Council, informs me that McDonald's is again trying to establish an outlet in Katoomba, so the movement against the fast-food giant is starting up once more.
Local businesses are owned by people who live in the community and therefore have a vested interest in its future. They also tend to donate more money to local charities and community groups than do the big national chains. When we do business with our neighbours, we form personal as well as economic bonds that help build a strong community. These businesses put back some of their profits and revenues into the community, and they also support each other. When big companies come in, there is a ripple effect where money spent by local shoppers is directed away from the town's existing businesses and then taken out of the community. This can have an impact on all sorts of businesses - even the local newspaper. These big companies rely heavily on direct mail and tend not to advertise in local papers; in the US, some newspapers have followed local businesses in having to close because of lost trade. Economic assets are transferred to absentee owners, and retail decisions (e.g., not buying local organic produce) are moved to distant boardrooms.
The Co-op's ethics and vision
When you shop at Maleny's Maple Street Co-op, you know where the money is going and you are supporting a wider range of families. We have to go through more distributors because we do not have the buying power of bigger shops, but more people are working and more families benefit. We believe everyone in the chain should receive a fair return for their effort. We also do not undercut prices in order to win sales. We deal with local growers as much as possible and thus cut down on transportation costs, which is also environmentally sounder. You may have to pay more on some things, but less on others. And when you consider the cost and time involved in travelling to the coast, you're better off buying here. We give our members the best prices we can without sacrificing our viability. The small profits we do make are put back into the community via events such as the Secret Women's Business night that was held on 10 September 2003.
Retaining Maleny's character
We want to retain the main street as the heart of the community. Community cooperation, more so than competition, would seem to be the key. Big businesses declare they are bringing competition, but they really are the end of competition once all other competitors are gone. They are big and greedy and are not known for their compassion for individuals and communities. Fairness would be a better concept, surely.
It's been mooted that the proposed new development on nearby Miva Street [by Peninsula Developments; since put on hold; Ed.] will be tasteful and fit in with the look of Maleny. The same thing was said of a proposed development in Dallas, Texas. As Ronnie Holman, the head of a coalition that fought that development, said: "You put red lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig."
We need to enact policies that build strong, sustainable communities. We should be good neighbours and not just consumers. These new corporate and multinational trends do not have to be our destiny. The Retain Maleny's Character campaign is up and running and will probably have some impact on the proposed developments for Maleny. We are not against growth, so much as we are for "smart growth" - and how appropriate, since we now live in the "smart state". Maybe Maleny could be a "smart growth town"? It is up to the people in this area as to whether local businesses thrive or fail. With your support, our main street will prevail, remain vibrant and viable, and not be gobbled up by the giants.
The Home Town Advantage Bulletin, http://www.newrules.org
The Orion Society, http://www.oriononline.org
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