Nowhere else in America is the tradeoff between manufacturing jobs and low-wage retail jobs clearer than in the small suburb of Brooklyn, Ohio.
Brooklyn, Ohio describes itself as a “small town surrounded by a big city.” Brooklyn is a “first-ring suburb” of the City of Cleveland in Northeast Ohio. The city has been losing population since 1970, when it had 13,420 people. By 2008, Brooklyn’s population had dropped roughly 22% to 10,410. This demographic loss means that as new national chain store retailers come to Brooklyn, existing merchants are pushed over the edge, because there are not enough consumers to support an oversaturation of retail supply.
At the same time, the city is desperately trying to cling to what manufacturing jobs it has left. The city has been in the national headlines for weeks — not over a Wal-Mart expansion — but over the potential contraction of the Hugo Boss factory in the city.
Hugo Boss and union leaders have been meeting with a federal mediator without reaching any agreement on the planned closure of a men’s suit factory in Brooklyn, which could cost 375 jobs. The union is laboring to prevent the scheduled April 27 shutdown of the Hugo Boss plant and to avert major pay cuts.
The union says the plant is making money, but Hugo Boss says it’s not “globally competitive,” which is code for not being able to cut labor costs to meet the price offered by giant retailers like Wal-Mart.
Workers United, the union which represents workers at the plant, says the German-based clothing company wants to move suit production to low-wage plants in Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria. Hugo Boss has only owned the Brooklyn plant for 15 years. Before that, the company was operated by the Joseph & Feiss Company, which made suits in plants around Cleveland since the 1800s. Last spring the union told the media that Hugo Boss wanted to cut the worker’s wages by 35%, from $12.80 an hour to $8.30 an hour — essentially the same wage as a Wal-Mart clerk. When it was first announced that the Hugo Boss store would close, one reader in the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “Business men will have to go to Wal-Mart to get their clothes.”
Ironically, with the Hugo Boss crisis as a backdrop, the city is still feeding the retailer that is biting it. The city is processing a plan from Wal-Mart to tack on an expansion to its existing store on Brookpark Road — despite the fact that there is a Wal-Mart supercenter less than three miles away on Steelyard Drive in Cleveland. For a community that has been hurt by the exodus of manufacturing jobs — the last thing the city needs is more retail sprawl.
The giant retailer appeared before the Brooklyn Planning Commission on April 8th. Wal-Mart has proposed adding 35,680 s.f. to its existing store, to convert it from a discount store to a 160,802 s.f. supercenter with a full line grocery. The only concession the Planning Commission required was the removal of several cart ports in the parking lot to make room for additional parking spaces.
The expansion of Wal-Mart’s Brookpark Road was adopted on a 4-0 vote by the Planning Commission. The only discordant note was objections raised by Betco Properties, which owns the land that contains a neighboring Sam’s Club. Betco charged that Wal-Mart is not providing enough parking spaces for the size of the store. This plan has been tabled twice before by the Planning Commission. Wal-Mart also asked for variances from the city’s zoning code to avoid having to landscape 5% of the parking lot. If Wal-Mart has to provide basic landscaping in the parking lot, the square footage of the store will be too big for the lot available.
As the Hugo Boss confrontation reaches its climax, Wal-Mart continues to be the Boss of city officials, leading the growth debate that instead should be locally-driven.
The fundamental design and impact of a larger big box store makes no sense in the context of the city’s 2006 Master Plan. According to the Master Plan, the city’s goal is to “retain and enhance our ‘small town’ character… and strive to ensure a quality built environment that support and encourages community/resident interaction, provides exciting and imaginative development, and ensure minimal impact on the natural environment.” There is nothing ‘exciting and imaginative’ about a Wal-Mart superstore.
In addition to protecting community character and identity, the Master Plan in Brooklyn seeks to ensure that “commercial development projects are attractively designed and compatible with the community’s development goals. The Plan seeks to “promote occupancy of existing retail centers,” and protect adjacent residential areas from additional adverse impacts.
The Master Plan also clearly lists as a goal to “limit the establishment of any more big-box retail stores to the Brookpark Road Corridor, where these uses already are concentrated.” “With the closing of retail stores,” the Plan explains, “there is an opportunity to redevelop certain properties that are presently underutilized and/or vacant.” But a larger Wal-Mart will only create more vacant properties.
Brooklyn is also working at cross-purposes with its own future plans. The city wants to create a “City Center” to serve as a focal point for its residents. But instead of creating a “gathering place” with a concentrated mix of uses for “jobs, shops and services within walking distance of their homes,” the Wal-Mart proposal represents more automobile-dependent development which destroys the “sense of identity and place” that Brooklyn seeks to create.
Readers are urged to email Brooklyn Mayor Richard Balbier at: http://www.brooklynohio.gov/index.php?option=com_contact&Itemid=3 with the following message: “Dear Mayor Balbier, You have said that your number 1 priority is to deal with the current financial situation that is affecting the City of Brooklyn, and to move the City in the direction of having more money coming in than going out. You served on the Master Plan committee. You know that the proposed Wal-Mart expansion is not compatible with the city’s goal of preserving the ‘small town atmosphere’ of your community. You say Brooklyn is a small town surrounded by a big city. If you allow this Wal-Mart to expand, you will be a small town surrounded by a big box.
You do not have the resident base to support more grocery stores. Most of Wal-Mart’s sales will come from a shrinking supply of shoppers who currently patronize other stores. This will lead to more store closings, and more vacant properties. That means more money going out of the community as retailers die off.
Wal-Mart today is building superstores that are smaller than your current Wal-Mart discount store. They don’t need to expand their current store, which is more efficient and sustainable than a larger store. As the Ohio-based researcher Retail Forward has predicted, for every one Wal-Mart superstore that opens, two grocery stores will close. That’s the last thing Brooklyn needs.
It would be far better to focus your attention on protecting the Hugo Boss plant, and securing what little manufacturing jobs you have left — rather than oversupplying the area with low-wage retail baggers and clerks. Wal-Mart buys its suits from China, and they are one of the reasons why companies like Hugo Boss are looking to make their last exit out of Brooklyn. Don’t reward the very company that has helped drive millions of production jobs out of America — including from Brooklyn, Ohio.
You cannot buy small town quality of life on any Wal-Mart shelf, Mayor Balbier. Once it is gone — Wal-Mart can’t sell it back to you at any price.”