Thursday, April 8, 2010

Is Los Alamos to get "State Department Store"?

"...The most famous GUM*... a large store
in Kitai-gorod of Moscow, facing Red Square...."

I find it rather interesting that on a County Council dominated by Republicans, we are still having arguments, albeit from a single councilor, about County Government mandating that we have a Big Box store here in Bombtown. But even discounting that one emphatic voice, the overall tone of the conversation continues to be government managing private enterprise. Is not the free market supposed to decide these things? Shouldn't the county just sell the land and let private enterprise decide how to develop it? Unless, of course, we want to put up a college or other public institution.

Well, Comrades, if Council acts on turning Trinity Site into retail of its choosing by brute force, I think the taxpayer will end up footing the bill when it fails. We wouldn't be the first community to end up with a white elephant for a mall.

As imperfect as capitalism is, the theory is that customers vote with their paychecks amidst the free market of goods and services provided by those willing to build an enterprise. Well, that's the theory, anyway. The (limited) role of government is to facilitate commerce impartially through fair tax and zoning policies, to oversee a level playing field (i.e., antitrust laws, interstate commerce laws, and the like) and to collect taxes and maintain the public's infrastructure and services.

Government can and does regulate commerce when it is in the national interest or in the interests of public safety and health, but those roles are limited and Government should not otherwise dictate shopping choices for us.

Shopping has changed considerably in the last decades and not just on the Hill. With a fast freeway to bigger, more centralized market centers that can support Big Boxes, and with Internet shopping at our fingertips, the role of the local store in a small community has been redefined. I am sure that if Big Box, Inc. thought it could turn a buck here, we would see their CEOs breaking down the doors to Council Chambers rather than County Government having to ask. But maybe government knows best on this one?

Perhaps if gas prices climb precipitously, people will shop closer to home and it will make sense for more companies to invest in some concrete and steel up here. But until it makes economic sense for those companies to build here, I won't hold my breath. Why? There isn't enough market to support the considerable overhead that a concrete and steel store needs to raise (see Richard Hanneman's post) and there is a lot of competition down in the bigger population centers in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

So if the simple act of freeing up more land brings down costs and brings these stores to town, that's great. If not, and if you want nearby Boxes, move to a big city. But if you want to enjoy what makes Los Alamos a small and special place in its cul-de-sac by the Jemez Mountains, you may have to deal with the limited local shopping. At least until, via changed consumer spending habits and a little more freed up space on the hill, that changes.

Personally, I would like to see Trinity Site used for building an enterprise we could use to sell stuff to others rather than as a convenient shopping mall built on a one-horse economy. Los Alamos is utterly dependent on Uncle Sam's largess. With the nation floating on borrowed money and with Congress utterly dysfunctional, that scares me and maybe it should scare you.

That's my $0.02, anyway. YMMV.

* from wikipedia: Main Department Store or GUM (ГУМ, pronounced as goom, in full Главный Универсальный Магазин, Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin) is a modern name for the main department store in many cities of the former Soviet Union, known as State Department Store Государственный Универсальный Магазин, Gosudarstvennyi Universalnyi Magazin) in the Soviet times.

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