Ask anybody how they define their community and they will inevitably mention the local businesses: the local grocery store; the shoe repair shop; the hardware store; the watch repair shop, and of course restaurants, bars, and the local farmers markets. It’s cliche, but it’s true: locally-owned businesses are the backbone of communities and Main Street.
In the past two decades locally-owned shops have been increasingly undermined by complicated tax policy; overly burdensome regulations; and increasing tax burdens from local, state, and federal entities. As a result of the increasing complication and difficulty in starting a small business, while more small businesses are starting up than ever before, our overall economic picture is showing that Wall Street is gaining a greater share of the overall economic spending power of Americans: Main Street is being traded for Wall Street. This ultimately results in the rich getting richer and local economies becoming increasingly less independent and more reliant on Wall Street corporations, banks, and investment for both jobs and tax revenue.
One problem often overlooked is how our so-called “free market” isn’t exactly free. Local businesses rarely are ever asking the government for hand-outs. Why should they? They want their revenue to come from sales and serving their customers. But there is a massive unfair advantage given to Wall Street corporations in the form of tax abatements and subsidies that our cities provide to entice the corporate behemoths to build and do business in our cities. Along the Wasatch Front alone millions of dollars have been doled out to mega-corporations to set up shop, even if they are a direct threat to local business operations and revenue.
These subsidies are designed to favor Wall Street retail, tech, and restaurants over the local businesses. Amazon was given over $5 million by the state of Utah to open its first major facility near the Salt Lake City International Airport. Then they were given another $1 million to cover infrastructure costs at their South Jordan facility (the Utah Investigative Journalism Project learned for Utah Stories).
Have you not heard of any of these incentives? They receive scant media attention, because both the legislators passing the laws as well as the corporate lobbyist partners, don’t want you to know about them. But Amazon isn’t alone.
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According to Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks government subsidies to large corporations, Walmart stores receive on average $7.4 million in local and state tax subsidies per store. And as of 2004 Walmart stores had received a staggering $1.08 billion in subsidies from 244 stores.
When was the last time your local bookseller or hardware shop boasted about getting any tax subsidy from the local government? Despite our love for our local shops, tax subsidies or breaks for locally-owned businesses rarely occur. This is because local businesses can’t promise fancy lunches by lobbyists or contributions to political campaigns, nor millions in eventual sales tax revenue to city coffers.
The same Good Jobs First study also contends that these subsidies are not going to attract high-paying jobs, or to entice a new innovation in the marketplace. Instead, Walmart and Amazon often put local shops such as hobby stores, toy stores, hardware, and sporting goods stores out of business. This drives down commercial real estate producing blighted empty retail areas. The big-box blight, offering millions of unused square feet of retail space has remained empty for years.
The Spirit Halloween Stores Flourish Due to Bad Economic Policy
Examining last Halloween, there were seven Spirit Halloween stores along the Wasatch Front in empty or unused big box stores. These seven locations were formerly supermarkets, K-Marts, Sears, and hobby and sporting goods stores. The big-box boneyards are partially the result of our economic leaders assisting Walmart and Amazon in putting former competitors out of business.
But some might argue that Walmarts in communities improve the lives of residents by offering cheap products that stretch our limited family budgets. This is a valid argument, and big-box stores are excellent at selling their stores to local communities based on not only the “value-added” but the promise of big tax benefits to municipalities in the form of collecting retail sales tax.
But in reality, according to the same report, Walmart often destroys as many jobs as it creates. They don’t mention this when they are convincing our political leaders into giving them millions of dollars of tax breaks. Local, small retailers offer huge benefits that are often overlooked by city economic leaders.
The Economic Benefits of Local Business
An excellent local retailer knows their suppliers and they know their customers, who are both often more local or regional, boosting these areas’ economies (rather than the economy of China, where so many of Walmart and Amazon products are manufactured). They communicate to suppliers and manufacturers how they can improve products based on consumer feedback and demand. Owner-operated stores often hire out all major services to other local providers which improves the overall local economic output of service providers.
Studies prove that local businesses recirculate dollars into the local economy seven times more than a Wall Street corporation. This means the money that remains local and is recirculated can be taxed many more times by local governments. Money spent at Walmart immediately exits our economy, and cannot be taxed. Further, if these stores’ taxes are reduced, this is not an overall benefit for communities but a burden.
Our politicians need to begin to recognize how much our communities benefit from excellent locally-owned businesses. Part of Utah Stories’ mission is to demonstrate to our political leaders the benefit of supporting Main Street businesses over Wall Street Corporations. Our sense of place, our sense of community value; even our property values all benefit when there is an abundance and variety of local shops near our homes.
Let’s buy local this holiday season, and maintain our ownership over our towns and cities.
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