The playbill at this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland includes a wonderful production of Don Quixote, who, of course, wanders the Spanish countryside slaying imagined threats.
The novel is famous for the toppling of windmills thought to be giant warriors. Here in the North Bay, Don Quixote would feel at home.
Imagine him wandering through just Sonoma County alone wielding his lance. There goes a Wal-Mart. There goes a Lowe’s. There goes an In-N-Out Burger (almost). There goes a medium-density residential development. There goes a retirement community. And, oh my goodness, an asphalt plant.
Don Quixote killed sheep believing them warriors, freed unappreciative convicts and cut down those famous windmills.
Sonoma County officials who are charged with determining the fate of chain stores, housing developments and an asphalt plant apparently believe they are slaying corporate monsters, developers and an imagined asphalt toxic cloud.
Instead, they are killing thousands of jobs for local residents, sorely needed low-income retail services in the case of Wal-Mart, scores of affordable housing units, an innovative retirement community for gays and lesbians, critical paving supplies to affordably sustain the needs of local communities and, no small matter, turning away many millions in tax revenues at a time they are cutting services and laying off and furloughing workers.
The recent rejection of Lowe’s Home Improvement by the Santa Rosa City Council is particularly instructive.
Let’s be clear. Leading locally owned businesses like those represented before the City Council two weeks ago form the foundation and texture of our communities.
Some observers hailed the Lowe’s rejection as a watershed alignment of the anti-corporate, anti-growth environmentalists and the interests of local business leaders.
In reality, the real long-term threat to these treasured local companies is not necessarily one Lowe’s or one Wal-Mart. It is the simple fact that Sonoma County has stopped growing. It’s a good guess that if the county showed any signs of modest growth, those business leaders would not have even shown up. But in addition to the current harsh economy, the economic pie is fixed or shrinking, and further dividing it is a threat to everyone.
In July, unemployment in Sonoma County was 10.3 percent. Its ranking as the No. 3, No. 5 or No. 7 lowest rate in California has fallen to No. 11. In a labor force of 261,800, 27,000 people are unemployed. Yes, there are signs of a bottom to the recession, but there remains a lot of uncertainty. And there is no new viable economic engine on the horizon.
We can continue slaying Wal-Marts, or we can begin to address the real threats to the region of excessive and contradictory regulation, government fiefdoms, the increasing political power of anti-business unions and anti-anything environmentalists. Meanwhile, many political leaders today are fixated on a quixotic and unproven quest for all-or-nothing “new urbanism” in a county that has never thought of itself as urban.
No one wants wall-to-wall Wal-Marts for Sonoma County. It’s a balance between local, regional and national. And right now, it’s not getting any of them.