Chain and big box subsidies cost us far more than we imagine, but who cares so long as Starbucks is there?

From the linked Strong Towns article.

I’ve always wondered if the presumed “neutrality” of chains and big boxes — they’re generic and identical from place to place, all buttons with no fingers — fills some sort of psychological need in those for whom “localism” implies not a set of economic nuts and bolts, but the local community’s parochialism (or worse).

There always have been adherents to internationalism as a corrective to narrower nationalism (or localism), as applicable to seemingly universal belief systems otherwise diametrically opposed: Communism’s Internationale versus the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, for example.

As such: “I belong to the worldwide fraternity of Chipotle, where consistency and safety everywhere are the ultimate filters against the messiness of individualism and diversity — which barely exist in my burg, anyway.” 

Admittedly, it’s probably more likely that identification with chains and big boxes owes to the narcissistic qualities of consumer culture; I want this or that, and for so long as the price is right, the costs to others be damned.

Or, maybe, that few of us bother to think at all.

Before the Strong Towns link, there’s this transcript of a podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, with ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell and Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First.

It’s estimated, best ballpark number we have right now, that states and cities spend at least 70 billion, with a B, dollars a year in economic development incentives, and by far most of that is tax breaks, property tax abatements, sales tax exemptions, corporate income tax credits, R&D credits, film production credits. There’s a big menu. The average state has dozens of such programs on the books, which in turn are often locally administered.

Tax increment financing districts, enterprise zones, industrial revenue bonds, all those come under this category. The truth is, as you said, although some of the programs are justified in the name of helping small businesses or helping struggling neighborhoods, and in some cases that’s the way the programs were originally structured and written, over time they’ve become deregulated. Over time they’ve become give-mes that can go anywhere.

So we have TIF districts at the fringe of urban areas piling up apple orchards for Walmart Supercenters. We have subsidies for Amazon sortation centers that are just undermining Macy’s and K-Mart and Sears and all the other retail chains that are laying people off. We have an affluent suburb of Missouri, Des Peres, Missouri, outside of St. Louis, saying or mall is blighted because we don’t have a Nordstrom yet. We need to give a $31 million TIF deal this multinational REIT that owns this mall so that they won’t be blighted anymore and can subsidize bringing in a Nordstrom. It’s gotten really perverse. The anti-poverty argument has been turned upside down and on its head frankly over and over.

In short, government picks winners, and the chosen winners usually are the ones who had enough money to start with.


Drive a little ways out from the center of any town and you’re likely to find several big box stores—Target, Home Depot, Piggly Wiggly, you name it. They’re everywhere. If you took a helicopter or a drone above these parts of town, you’d likely see a vast amount of land taken up with just a handful of stores and their accompanying parking lots. The houses and small businesses around them would be dwarfed in comparison. Not only do they use up a ton of land, but as a result, big box stores also demand miles of public infrastructure like pipes and roads to serve them.

But here’s the crazy part: Those enormous stores are paying a negligible amount in taxes. For their size, they are contributing hardly anything while meanwhile demanding new electric lines and frontage roads and signalized intersections (among other things). In most cases, their taxes are not nearly enough to pay for the maintenance of these basic services, let alone the many other functions of our local governments that we expect taxes to pay for, like schools and fire protection.

Here’s a textbook example of this, created by our friends at Urban3, a firm that analyzes the relationship between building design and tax production. The illustration below shows the tax value of a big box store near Asheville, North Carolina, compared with a modest downtown building. Pay special attention to the taxes per acre.