While Puerto Rican politicians are focusing on the US Navy’s bombing of Viejes, they have ignored the economic saturation bombing that Wal-Mart is doing to the island. The Centro Unido de Detallistas, a 110 year old small business coalition, has been trying to draw the attention of government officials to the need to update its land use regulations regarding “megatiendas”, or superstores. In 1994, when I was first invited by the CUD to Puerto Rico, there were only 3 Wal-Marts and 2 Sam’s clubs. Now there are 9 Wal-Marts, 6 Sams Clubs, and the world’s largest retailer has opened its first supercenter, and several more have been announced. If Puerto Rico is the “island of enchantment”, they are under a spell of enchantment with American superstores. This week while I was in Puerto Rico, the local newspaper carried the story of the opening of 3 Home Depots. These were not really “new” stores, but a takeover of empty Builder’s Square stores, which were once owned by Kmart. It looks like economic growth, but it is really just corporate musical chairs. Over the past 10 years, the CUD has stopped more than 4 million square feet of new shopping center space, by using regulations found in the Junta de Planificacion (Planning Board). Developers must prepare an economic impact study in Puerto Rico, but many such reports are vague and ambiguous. The island’s Land Use Plan attempts to encourage “intensive use of lands within the urban perimeters,” but the sprawl keeps spreading out from the empty central business districts. The Plan also says that Puerto Rico should “maintain a balance” between regional-sized businesses and small and medium shops. It also says that commercial projects should only be located in commercial zones. Finally, the Land Use Plan has a goal of revitalizing the traditional urban centers, to help them remain “dynamic focal points of activity.” But the government is more concerned now with the bombing of Viejes than with the bombing of its Main Streets. Recently, the CUD found an ally in the Food Marketing, Industry and Distribution Associatioin (MIDA), which passed a resolution calling for a 2 year moratorium on the construction or expansion of any shopping cneter larger than 85,000 s.f., a ban on any government subsidies for such projects, and a requirement than 25% of the space in any new shopping center be reserved for small business. But while the struggle in Puerto Rico to maintain the traditional town centers goes on, the small businesses are being blown apart by the likes of Wal-Mart, Kmart and Home Depot. International sales at Wal-Mart now represent 17% of all Wal-Mart sales.
Here is how the newspaper “Caribbean Business” put it: “In the past few years, literally millions of additional square feet of retail space have been added, and dozens of new retailers have set up shop on the island. A somewhat smaller pie split among a larger number of yields a smaller piece.” And some of the smaller pieces are not enough for the little businesses to survive. For more information about the battle to keep a diverse marketplace in Puerto Rico, contract [email protected]