THE PILOT EDITORIAL - Superstore for Storm Lake?

Monday, January 7, 2002

It isn't uncommon these days for a large industry to come to a community with its hand out for tax breaks, utilities and roads, even money to buy their equipment.

It's become competitive business. The town that isn't willing to dip into the warchest for incentives probably won't get the plant and the jobs.

Last week, officials of Wal-Mart called off their plans to announce a massive Supercenter store for the city, but said they will instead approach the city council for ideas on ways that the expense of their plan could be decreased.

Retailers aren't quite so blatant as industry, and no specific demands are likely, but the implication is clear - the project doesn't pencil out without some help. Wal-Mart officials mention that another northwest Iowa city happily spent many, many thousands of dollars toward getting just such a store built.

If the majority of the community wants such a store, perhaps the city council will find ways to help with a tax deferment or a compromise on infrastructure that could help the area additionally develop, and in turn produce more property and sales tax revenue.

Wal-Mart is a huge, well-heeled company, however. They don't need a piece of a small city's budget handed to them in order to build a store. They can afford to pave and lay sewer pipe.

The city would have a hard time defending such a gift if it was made; there are an awful lot of local businesses that scratched their way to success in a competitive market without looking to someone for incentives and breaks. For some of them, a Super Wal-Mart might be one competitor too many.

And we doubt whether the city is prepared to extend such a precedent to pay other stores that might look at the city in the future.

Such a Superstore comes with its goods and bads, like any development. It might improve Storm Lake's retail pull a bit against Spencer, although the novelty of department-grocery stores is not so new now, and people aren't likely to drive terribly far just for one store. It might encourage some other stores or restaurants to come in around it, or the pressure could make some existing stores and restaurants close up.

It might improve local option sales tax funds for good projects in the community, but it might also do things to the traffic patterns and maintenance costs.

It would improve selection of merchandise as opposed to the smaller store, and perhaps add convenience for some who would choose to shop, buy groceries, get a vision check and a lube job all under one roof. But there are also those who will point out that Storm Lake had five department stores before Wal-Mart, and soon after it, lots of vacancies to fill.

We want to hear from the loyal merchants of our charming downtown shopping village. They are a vital resource to be cared for, too.

Some might feel that the sale barn corner cries out for development, and others, that a change from the agricultural nature of the area to intense retailing isn't completely a cause for celebration.

The eventual decision on a Super Wal-Mart will change the city and its habits somewhat. The council may be put in the tough position of defining progress in those terms, and trying to determine how many of the people see a sprawling department store as what Storm Lake needs for its future.

Maybe a modest amount of local cooperation is all it will take. But we had better weigh the potential gains and losses before taking action.

Would the citizens want to take away funds that could help further dredge the lake, build playgrounds for our kids, create a long-awaited community center or a modern pool, improve water and roads systems - to give it to an incredibly wealthy corporation to grease the wheels of development?