One Wal-Mart Ain’t Enough

 

How’s this for kooky: A city trying to shed its redneck image lays down big money on Wal-Mart.

Raytown leaders have put together a deal to subsidize a new Wal-Mart on Missouri Highway 350. The package reeks of desperation. City officials say they’ll put $32 million toward the cost of the project — five times what they’re expecting Wal-Mart to contribute.

City leaders don’t expect to make money on their investment. Last month, in a closed session, the Board of Alderman reviewed a PowerPoint presentation that referred to the Wal-Mart deal as a “loss leader.”

City officials are acting out of fear that the world’s largest retailer is going to close its existing store in Raytown and build a new one just outside city limits. City Administrator Michael Miller and his staff prepared the PowerPoint presentation, which says the city must act in order to protect its tax base. (A city staffer gave me a hard copy.)

Raytown’s thinking is by no means unique. A 2004 survey by a group called Good Jobs First found Wal-Mart benefiting from more than $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies.

The puzzling aspect of Raytown’s panic-induced generosity is that no one seems to be thinking about the consequences. With a downtown that even Greensburg tornado victims might find depressing, Raytown is spending its resources on Highway 350, the auto slum that hastened the central business district’s death spiral.

For every Smith Bros. Hardware, with its cool neon sign and helpful staff, a junk building or empty lot tells the downtown Raytown visitor to keep moving. One storefront on 63rd Street lights up only three days a month, when dog owners arrive for training. The city owns a boarded-up church that First Baptist Raytown abandoned when it moved to Highway 350. A Mr. Goodcents casts a fluorescent glow on the tenantless spaces of the Raytown Plaza strip center.

A shabby downtown doesn’t help Raytown’s image as Land of the Halter Top and Camaro. The city lags in residents with college degrees. Under a former chief, the police developed a reputation for racial profiling. Raytown provided the setting for Mama’s Family, a 1980s sitcom built on jokes about tacky people.

I guess here is where I should say that I live there. Last fall, my wife and I found the house of our price-adjusted dreams in Raytown. The taxes are low, and our neighbors are nice, though one of them called the Pitch a “trashy rag” before my wife was able to inform her that that’s where her husband goes every morning.

We’re happy in Raytown, but I will confess to moments when my address embarrasses me. The other day, a half-empty bottle of Shasta Tiki Punch wound up on my lawn. Really, who drinks that shit?

I’d feel better about Raytown if its downtown were a place that I wanted to spend more time. I’m not alone. In a recent survey, 49 percent of Raytown residents said they wanted downtown to be a priority area for maintenance efforts.

The city has tried to revive downtown. Elected leaders have brought in two different developers since 2005 and told them to work their magic. But property owners complained about getting lowball offers to sell their land, and the developers moved on, having accomplished nothing. Last month, The Kansas City Star hailed Sue Frank, the outgoing Raytown mayor, as “forward-thinking.” But it’s hard for me to see the progress she made.

When Frank was mayor, the city began the effort to find a new site for Wal-Mart along the highway near Raytown Road. The plan is expensive because it demolishes a couple of buildings used by the Raytown School District’s Herndon Career Center. The city will pay for new school buildings and up to $11.5 million of Wal-Mart’s development costs. The money will come from future taxes generated by the project. (Yes, it’s a TIF deal.)

The Board of Aldermen discussed aspects of the proposal at a sparsely attended evening meeting on May 8. The only people there were a lawyer, a woman filming the event for public-access TV and two reporters (including me). Alderman Greg Walters cast the only “no” votes on ordinances related to the Wal-Mart deal.

The PowerPoint slides say Wal-Mart “will be the economic engine that drives redevelopment decisions in all of Raytown.” I can understand that city leaders are freaked about losing their existing Wal-Mart. But looking to Bentonville, Arkansas, for salvation was a bad idea 15 years ago. Academic research backs up anecdotal evidence that Wal-Mart does not create wealth as much as consolidate it.

Raytown leaders hope that a new supercenter will appeal to the commuters who use Highway 350. “We can capture a lot of shoppers that are not even Raytown residents,” Miller, the city administrator, tells me.

Miller says the Wal-Mart will complement (not compete with) the effort to fix downtown. But he’s dreaming. A ghastly stretch of fry pits, loan stores and storage facilities, Highway 350 pulled commerce from downtown and made it cheap and trashy. A four-lane highway of KFCs and tint shops is not a place worth caring about, and it’s hard to see how spending taxpayer money for development on the strip does downtown anything but a disservice. Gifts for the mistress do not a happy marriage make.

As the Wal-Mart deal nears completion, downtown Raytown’s surviving businesses feel mostly neglect. Todd Glidewell, who owns Smith Bros. Hardware, knows that he can beat a newer, fancier Wal-Mart on service. But he wonders about the missed opportunity. The city will spend $220,000 just on legal costs associated with the Wal-Mart deal. “I just wish Raytown would focus on downtown Raytown and not 50 Highway,” he tells me (using the name of the road once it reaches Lee’s Summit).

I bought a Shop-Vac at Smith Bros. last week. Glidewell says his store sold more than 100 pumps to homeowners who, like me, found water in their basements after the heavy rain. “Every time I sold one, I felt horrible for people,” Glidewell says.

I doubt that Sam Walton’s heirs, who are said to be worth $80 billion, would feel the same.

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