A very big modern question: To shop at Walmart or not to shop at Walmart? Marriages have broken up over it. Economic zoning skirmishes have embittered communities. And now around Ballston Spa, a new Walmart controversy rears its ugly head. Once again.
A better question might be this: Should Walmart and all its various “values” be permitted to operate within the Ballston Spa area?
But I like another question best of all: Why in the world would a stable community like the town of Ballston — or any stable community of normally intelligent people — allow a disruptive non-local company like Walmart into its very midst?
Let’s establish the facts. According to The Daily Gazette, Walmart in April proposed a 137,000-square-foot store off Route 50 on the same site where a much larger Walmart store was proposed in 2005. That 2005 proposal was ultimately withdrawn after bitter opposition from community opponents.
The present proposal appears to comply with zoning approved by the Ballston Town Board in 2011.
It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point in the history of modern American sprawl that loopholes in favor of big businesses have such a way of creeping into local zoning documents. Corporate law departments are very often so much more legally experienced and sophisticated than elected local leaders. In this case, as in so many others, let’s just assume that the zoning loophole in the 2011 town zoning plan was inadvertently created.
Until now, the Walmart planned for Ballston just south of the village of Ballston Spa was being framed as if it were only a matter for the town Planning Board under the leadership of Richard Doyle. Quite the contrary. Actually, taxpayers in surrounding municipalities are also big stakeholders.
The impact on the future quality of life for Ballston Spa-area residents may still be unclear. But the latest figures from the Fulton County Treasurer’s Office provide an early look at what could be the economic consequences for Saratoga County municipalities.
The latest figures from Fulton County are clear: A new Walmart store drains off sales-tax revenue from neighboring villages and towns if sales-tax revenue agreements are not in place to share revenue with the surrounding municipalities.
As shoppers patronize the new Walmart Super Center in Gloversville for cheap, foreign-made bargains, the sales-tax revenue in Fulton County outside the city of Gloversville have plummeted.
This decline in revenue could soon become a problem for taxpayers in nearby jurisdictions. If lost revenue can’t be made up by 2 percent increases in property taxes, then services may need to be cut.
Here are some specific figures from the Fulton County Treasurer’s Office: Sales-tax revenue between May 7, 2013, and April 28, 2014, in the town of Johnstown are down 31 percent, from $208,409 to $144,275. In the town of Broadalbin, the decrease is from $158,988 to $109,500. Likewise, in Mayfield, the decrease is from $217,031 to $148,862. Some of this decline in sales-tax revenue, I believe, can be attributed to that new Walmart Super Center in Gloversville.
The evidence from Fulton County suggests that a new Walmart could have a distinctly negative impact on taxpayers in surrounding villages and towns if a fair sales-tax-revenue-sharing plan with the surrounding municipalities is not in place. Concerned residents of Ballston might also take a trip to Amsterdam and Gloversville to see for themselves the extent to which foolish zoning laws have led to the loss of small business in once vibrant and healthy city centers.
If the Ballston Planning Board makes the mistake to allow a new Walmart off Route 50, it will be essential at the very least for other nearby municipalities to insist on side deals with Ballston to pool the sales-tax revenue and to split the tax revenue within the county.
In light of all the quality-of-life issues facing stable communities like the town of Ballston and the village of Ballston Spa, a broader question begs asking: Does the world of upstate New York really need another Walmart? Why? So that a small handful of regional developers can pocket money? So that a company with a record of creating low-wage jobs, and buying products from overseas factories, can use Saratoga County to mine for new revenue, revenue that it will proceed to transfer out of New York state?
The broader issue is whether leaders in the town of Ballston will sell out to the big-box company for no good social and cultural reasons, and for no clear, long-term economic benefits. This controversy has all the makings of another sad community sell-out, where community values and small-business interests are sacrificed on the altar of big-time commercial greed.
Here’s to the success of community groups like Smart Growth Ballston in their enlightened attempt to oppose the Walmart plan for the town of Ballston.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.