In the ongoing controversy over the proposed Wal-Mart at the Wilderness battleground, as in so many similar disputes, it’s easy to get the impression that people who oppose development are standing in the way of the community’s economic well-being. Historic preservation, we’re told, comes at the expense of jobs and tax revenue. The implication is that historians hundreds of miles away have no business telling a community that they can’t enjoy these economic benefits.
It’s a compelling argument. I’m from a small town myself, and I have a strong localist orientation. My general opinion is that any group of outside interests which attempts to dictate against a community’s best interests should take a long walk off a short pier into shark-infested waters.
Furthermore, I don’t doubt that many opponents of preservation in these situations really are concerned about the community’s economic welfare. I can’t think of any sane person who would promote bulldozing some historic ground for no other reason than to destroy it. Of course, the motives of outside corporate and real estate interests who stand to profit personally are another matter. I’m referring here to people in the community who, naturally enough, want low prices for goods and a bigger tax base to provide revenue for the government services they and their families need.
I also realize that people who live near historic ground didn’t ask to be put in the position of stewardship over it. A Civil War blogger once said something along the lines of, “It’s not their fault there was a battle in their backyard.” (It’s worth pointing out, though, that as taxpayers we all have a legitimate economic stake in historic sites maintained by the federal government, besides the equally legitimate cultural stake we all share.)
But these argument from local economic health make a pretty big assumption, which is that the development projects in question would actually economically benefit the communities involved. And when it comes to the Wilderness Wal-Mart, I’m not at all sure that’s the case.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Check out this story about Wal-Mart’s long-term economic impact on local communities, which recently appeared on MSN. It cites study after study, and what it boils down to is this: Wal-Mart provides a short-term shot in the arm, but in the long run the local economy actually suffers.
When Wal-Mart moves in, other local retailers have to cut costs or close entirely. Therefore you can’t simply look at the number of jobs that will be available at the new Wal-Mart and add those to the number of jobs your community already has. You have to subtract the number of jobs lost to the new chain store in reckoning that store’s overall economic impact.
And, of course, the “new jobs” will be Wal-Mart’s notoriously low-paying, low-benefit ones, so you may very well end up trading a given number of decent local jobs for less desirable chain-store jobs.
Furthermore, before reckoning the value of the added tax base a new development project will bring to the community, you have to subtract whatever tax breaks the local leaders have promised the project. How long will it take for the “new” tax revenue to make up this difference before you start seeing an actual gain?
If the Wilderness Wal-Mart will have the same impact as the stores in the similar case studies cited in the news story, then the people who are really promoting the community’s best economic interest are the same ones who support the battlefield’s protection.
Local politicians who sacrifice long-term economic health and priceless historic ground for a year or two of small, short-term growth are putting themselves in Esau’s position—selling their birthright for one lousy bowl of soup. What are the local citizens who lose their jobs and businesses, and the Americans who lose part of their common past, supposed to do when that bowl is empty?
(Wartime photo shows part of the Wilderness battlefield, from The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes via Wikimedia Commons)