Rural Planning

I guess this is the post to piss off my liberal friends.

I’ve lived in a number of places – small towns, mid-size cities and Austin (the largest city in which I’ve lived, which isn’t very large). I’ve seen the businesses and the opportunities in such towns. Let me stress this: I’ve lived in them; not just visited for a bit. With my knowledge of the economic geography of these various areas, I found it amusing during last year’s holidays when people protested those having to work and the low pay they received (an issue that hasn’t completely faded), especially at certain big-box stores.

The protests were all over Facebook, with pictures of Costco’s CEO and a quote essentially mocking other discount retailers for not paying or treating their employees as well as he does. What isn’t mentioned is the lack of Costcos in non-urban/suburban areas, in towns more than a couple of hours outside of decent-sized metro areas.

Nice to talk big when you haven’t scaled to the point at which a larger percentage of urban dwellers (since you haven’t any true rural customers) regularly visiting your stores than Wal-Mart and other retailers. Wal-Mart provides the jobs in small towns. Not Costco. You can give me the spiel about Wal-Mart killing small mom-and-pop businesses, but let me tell you a little story.

I’ve mentioned before that it wasn’t long ago Misty and I were living in Horseshoe Bay, this little spit of a resort town near Marble Falls. HSB has no businesses to speak of, even though it’s crowded with million-dollar homes. After a ten-minute drive, one arrives in the town of Marble Falls. No matter how you drive it, MF is an hour to the outskirts of Austin. (Taking FM 1431 may be a little faster, but it’s also a dangerously curvy scenic route that’s single-lane in some places.)

Aside from a popular pie shop (at which a complete lack of taste buds is required to enjoy anything on the menu), there isn’t much to the place. The small businesses that are there tend to close in the early afternoon. If there weren’t an HEB, a Wal-Mart with a small grocery section (competition for HEB!), a Starbucks and a Home Depot, there’d be nothing there, especially after six in the evening.

This story repeats itself throughout the small towns I’ve lived in – Texas, Alabama, wherever. They never really had many businesses to begin with, at least not in this century. Drive through small towns in Mississippi or Texas still untouched by a big-box retailer. Ask the locals where they get items aside from basic necessities. Maybe Amazon, if their home has access to a decent Internet provider (in HSB, it’s HughesNet, dial-up or 3G – no cable or DSL; most were using 3G) and doesn’t have a GPS-less, dirt-road address. But my bet is they will respond with the nearest town with a Wal-Mart or other big-box retailer.

Ask them where the majority of the jobs are in their neck of the words. I bet the answer is the same.

So while we’re sitting around in Austin and San Francisco and D.C. and Charlotte and Pittsburgh thinking about the newest in urban planning, often with direct plans to push out big-box stores in favor of supposed, potential, yet-to-be-started, small, local businesses, we should remember that there are large swaths of the country not provided with the range of choices we are given. I’m not arguing that urban renewal plans and agitating for better wages and benefits are a bad thing, and trying to recreate a small-town atmosphere in a mixed-use development is just fine by me. But let’s remember that attempting to transport that anti-big-box mentality into rural communities may not exactly work.

The people in a Marble Falls or an Evergreen, Alabama, are looking for products and jobs. Would they like more of both? Absolutely. (Who wouldn’t?) But until people like the CEO of Costco are willing to spend extra money reaching those in rural areas, he, the company he heads and his supporters can’t completely claim the high road.


Aside: I’m very happy that Jacob Siegel finally came to the same conclusion I did at 18. “The U.S. Military Is a Socialist Paradise.”]



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