Downtown: It's all about investment

Told this week that Wal-Mart will be opening its new Poulsbo store in early 2006, one of our local correspondents mused, “Wonder if they’re

opening a welfare office next door?”

Much maligned for its labor practices – “Always Low Wages” and “Always Poor Benefits” come with those “Always Low Prices,” its myriad critics say – the world’s largest retailer has taken plenty of lumps of late. Probably a few more still, with the timely appearance of a film and lecture (as reported on today’s front page) examining the potential impacts on our local business community of the corporate behemoth settling in just up the highway. Should make for a lively discussion among island merchants and consumers alike.

If Wal-Mart’s imminent appearance serves a constructive purpose, though, it is to underscore the importance of following through with the vision espoused in the Winslow Tomorrow planning process. Our downtown already weathers considerable “leakage” of consumer dollars to off-island commercial centers like Silverdale, a problem that an aggressive discount retailer close by will only exacerbate. But our city and our community can counteract those forces somewhat by committing to parking and pedestrian improvements that will make it easier for Bainbridge shoppers to come downtown to patronize local storefronts.

We have argued in the past, and continue to do so, that the commitment of public dollars to our downtown should be considered not an expense, but an investment. Certainly a parking structure, for instance, would be a pricey proposition. But for perspective, we should also consider the capital being deployed elsewhere to see that our downtown fails.

According to a story that moved over the Associated Press wire service this week, Wal-Mart plans to open or expand 484 stores across the nation in 2006 – at least 100 more than previously announced – this, by a company that already blankets the nation in storefronts. (In Washington, new Wal-Marts are appearing in locations as far-flung as Federal Way and Chelan, as well as Poulsbo.) Despite seeing hundreds of its stores shut down at least temporarily by the spate of hurricanes that hit the South, the company reported a 10 percent increase in third-quarter sales from a year ago. And, after a “slow start” to the Christmas season last year, “Wal-Mart has promised to be more aggressive with discounts and its push to get shoppers to buy early for the 2005 season,” the report said.

Can our downtown compete? Some of Winslow’s boutiques are, we suspect, insulated from Wal-Mart’s appearance; it’s hard to imagine much crossover between patrons of the more upscale clothiers and an “All Shirts: $5.77” rack. Yet a thriving downtown isn’t about the success of individual businesses; it’s about maintaining a critical mass of storefronts, offering an array of merchandise and appealing to a broad range of consumer needs and tastes. Downtown Winslow could, arguably, use a broader array. But shopping elsewhere promotes neither availability nor variety; every dollar that’s spent off island is a dollar that’s not keeping an island storefront open or an island worker employed – and the soon-to-open discount retailer is counting on precisely that.

You’ll probably be spending a lot of dollars over the next six weeks. Invest them wisely.

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