Many communities across the country have enacted zoning changes that require large scale projects to produce an economic impact study to asesses the cost/benefit of opening up a superstore in the community. Similarly, a number of states, like Vermont, New York and California include economic impact of a project as a legitimate part of the zoning evaluation process. And why not? Developers always tout the jobs and taxes they claim to produce, so towns feel its fair to quantify the real net impact on public revenues. In Evanston, Wyoming, the city proposed some zoning changes during a 120 day moratorium that included the idea of an economic impact statement. The city’s Planning & Development department told residents “large traffic volumes require improvements to the public infrastructure, which can include widening of streets, new streets, traffic signalization, etc.” Planners added that superstores could result in “possible displacement of existing smaller, locally-owned businesses”, and that “disinvestment might occur in existing buildings in the downtown area.” The Planners even warned that “store profits are generally distributed out of the community to the corporate location.” The city then proposed that an “impact study” be done for retail projects over 25,000 s.f in size, and that the study be “completed by a consultant mutually agreeable to the city and the developer.” Wal-Mart, which already has a 65,930 s.f. store in Evanston, chimed into the debate. Wal-Mart objected to a economic study, saying “the information said to be the basis for the impact study is information which most large retail developers will have compiled long before making application for a building…It seems unnecessary and unduly burdensome to require that a third party consultant prepare the study at the expense of the applicant.” Wal-Mart suggested instead that developers submit their own reports, and have city staff review them. Most communities have no staff qualified to conduct or review an economic impact report. “Requiring the applicant to pay for what would require a variety of expert opinions, is unnecessary,” Wal-Mart wrote, “and cost prohibitive for the average applicant…” Within two weeks after Wal-Mart submitted its testimony, the Evanston City Council voted 5 to 1 to axe the big box economic impact study idea. According to the Uinta County Herald, Wal-Mart officials said producing such a study would not be a problem for them, but would be too expensive for most businesses.
I have never seen Wal-Mart, or any other large retailer, offer to share with a community the results of any marketing research they have done prior to submitting a proposal. Their market research assesses what kind of market share they could grab, not what the cost/benefit analysis would be on public revenues if other stores close and lay off their workers. Wal-Mart does not want third party “experts” involved in these hearings. Most communities have little or no capacity to produce their own analysis. So Wal-Mart is able to sway public officials largely on unsubstantiated economic promises. Evanston backed down from an economic impact statement, but for a copy of a zoning ordinance recently passed that requires a fiscal impact report, contact [email protected]