By Jim Bauman
As I enjoyed the remnants of a locally produced bag of Distler’s Fiery Pretzels this evening, I read with great curiosity and some concern the passionate arguments put forth by Lori Marino regarding the recent construction progress on Lot 30 in the commercially zoned area next to Ponderosa, Hannaford, and the new CVS on Route 2A. Marino complains “how many drug stores do we need…” and about the “add water and stir” food that she feels Panera will be selling to hapless Williston residents and others.
Localism of this sort, where we are directed to determine which business can and cannot operate in our state and our towns based on value judgments about who owns them and where they live, the quality and social value of the products they’ll sell and the services they’ll offer, and if they fit in with our version of “the wonderful dream of coming home to Vermont,” are at best curious to me and at worst potentially strangling the future economic prospects of our state.
Apparently, we don’t need another pharmacy choice or the ability to get our hair cut on a Sunday, and we should drive to South Burlington if we need to get a new cell phone or have a problem with our current one, because we already have Williston-owned businesses that provide these services. Actually, being a Williston resident for 12 years now, I think I can confidently say Williston’s town leadership and community have struck an excellent balance between promoting both local businesses and the choice and convenience of regional and national chain stores. Starbucks has not put Belle’s out of business, nor has Quiznos destroyed Vermont Sandwich Company, and neither will Panera put Chef’s Corner or Sweet Harmony Home Bakery out of business.
Each of these local businesses and national chains being present in our community offers us choices that we vote for with our dollars and our freedom. They employ Vermonters, pay taxes to the town and state, and find their place in our local community if they survive. Competition amongst these businesses for your dollars improves the choices and services available to us as Williston and Vermont residents. However, if we allow narrowly defined localism and wistful longing for a perfect Vermont experience to disallow these choices for our community, we limit not just our current options, but our future ones as well.
Vermont ranks at 39 out of the 50 states in a 2012 study by the network CNBC. Our housing prices and cost of living expenses are high with respect to the typical salaries offered in the state, and our high school students leave the state for out-of-state colleges at one of the highest rates in the nation. While it would be specious at best to tie these two trends back to only wistful localism, attitudes akin to the one expressed in last week’s Guest Column play a role. Less choices, having it be harder to open or move a business to Vermont, or to build a house here, less population, less jobs, lower salaries, smaller tax base, it all has a cost. As Vermonters, we are explicitly or implicitly paying that cost to live the Vermont dream, but let’s not needlessly increase that cost and limit our choices and future because we’re afraid our very capable locally owned business can’t stand up to a little national competition.
I’m looking forward to trying breakfast at Panera soon, but I’m also looking forward to enjoying our family’s next dinner and some live music and local beer at Monty’s. In Williston, you can have them both, and I, for one, am very much okay with that.
Jim Bauman is a Williston resident.