Tasting the Staples stew
Every now and then, it's good to have a little Staples to spice up the stew of community life. It not only adds some complexity, nuance and balance - sort of like adding a dash of cab frank to round out a good cabernet (to mix a metaphor) - but it offers a much needed opportunity for the citizenry to exercise its collective voice.
That's what happened at Monday night's City Council meeting, where 20 people appeared at the podium to offer various views on the wrongness or rightness of a Staples store moving into the former Holder Ford building on West Napa.
At issue was the question of whether the City Council should consider pursuing a possible moratorium on so-called big-box stores until revisions to Sonoma's development code could be considered. The council voted no, 5-0. But at one level, the question was moot to begin with. Existing zoning already permits a Staples store, while targeting one company with a moratorium would probably have been illegal and would have risked a lawsuit from either Staples or Chuck Holder, who owns the building or both.
Beyond that, is the larger question of how at risk our beloved small town really is from the invasion of big-box behemoths like WalMart or Lowes or the commercial blight of the dreaded chain store.
Holder, who confides he has fallen in love with Sonoma even though he doesn't live here, really does seem to have our best interests at heart and says he rejected offers from less than suitable suitors. Staples, he said, was the right size, with the right corporate and environmental ethic and had been looking for a Sonoma entry point for at least five years.
Besides, Holder pointed out, there isn't another site in Sonoma large enough to accommodate a real big-box store, which typically requires between 50,000 and 200,000 square feet. And what local retailer could afford to lease Holder's 14,400-square-foot building? It might make a great new library, but who would pay for it?
And as Councilmember Tom Rouse pointed out, if we're worried about an invasion of chain stores, it's a little late. Starting at the north edge of town, visitors are greeted in rapid succession by a McDonalds, a Taco Bell, a Lucky's, a Rite Aid, a Starbucks, a Jack in the Box, a Safeway, a CVS and a Whole Foods - chain stores all.
Perhaps the most constructive comments came from ultra-progressive activist Ben Boyce who suggested that, while it might be too late to address the Staples store, the city should consider an evaluation process called the Community Impact Report, which goes well beyond old-fashioned EIRs in measuring the multiplicity of social, economic, structural and even moral impacts of proposed developments. That process is in use in cities across the country including places as stereotypically conservative and pro-development as Texas.
The most worrisome result of a Staples store will be its impact on local mom-and-pop businesses. Victoria Frank makes the case for her store's survival in the Op-Ed column at right. To keep her in business Sonomans should shop there. But the truth is, we already spend 83 percent of our office supply dollars outside the Valley, much of it via Staples online.