When politicians want to spend trillions of dollars of other people's money, it's hard not to notice – as the around-the-clock coverage of the Supreme Court's recent rulring on “Obamacare” illustrated.
But public officials' willingness to impose their desires on somebody else's wallet is just as dangerous on a smaller and more local scale, precisely because it sounds so reasonable.
There is no doubt that the May closure of the Scott's food store on North Anthony Boulevard imposed a hardship on any number of people: the Kroger Co., which operated the store; Rogers Family Properties, which owns the building forced to close because of structural problems; customers forced to shop elsewhere and others. But when two local politicians and the heads of several neighborhood associations wrote a letter last month imploring Cincinnati-based Kroger to keep the store open to serve the area that has “faithfully patronized your facility,” they glossed over one important point:
Businesses exist for one reason only: to earn a profit for their owners. And because appeals to corporate altruism cannot change that, people who want to save the neighborhood grocery should be asking themselves a more difficult but infinitely more constructive question:
What can we do to convince Kroger that reopening the store is in its best economic interest?
Before problems with the roof were detected in May, there was no indication the location was to be included in Kroger's recent consolidation of local stores despite the presence of a much-larger Kroger facility just one mile away. Spokesman John Elliott said the Anthony location was performing well for a store without a fuel center or internal pharmacy (its pharmacy is in a separate building).
But whatever economic model was in place before the store closed may no longer apply because of the unknown but substantial cost of repair or replacement – money Rogers can't spend without a longer-term lease from Kroger, which is understandably reluctant to commit to a lengthy deal without a favorable cost-benefit analysis.
Until and unless Rogers and Kroger can reach a mutually beneficial deal – and the two sides are expected to meet soon – all the posturing in the world won't do anything but generate headlines.
To be fair, the letter authored by City Councilman Russ Jehl and co-signed by State Rep. Win Moses does offer to “do all that is possible to assist the Kroger Co. in the restoration of the property.” But as Jehl noted, Kroger has not sought financial help from the city and there is no guarantee it would be provided even if requested. And Jehl said city subsidies would make him "uncomfortable" --properly so.
Instead, Jehl said the letter's purpose was three-fold – none of them directly related to economics: to open a dialogue with Kroger, to empower the neighborhood and to “make sure Kroger understands what a decision made in an Indianapolis boardroom means to a neighborhood in Fort Wayne.”
But Elliott said Kroger officials already understand that many of the store's customers live close by and would be reluctant to shop elsewhere, Even so, there is little evidence that the store's closure has had a negative impact on nearby businesses.
“When I moved five doors down (closer to Scott's) 14 years ago,” I saw a big difference in sales,” said Dennis Hutchings, co-owner of the Abba House Christian book and gift store at 3209 N. Anthony. Sales have not slowed noticeably since the closure, “but summers are slow anyway,” he added. "I do hope they stay. I shop there.”
So does MJ's Pizza co-owner Anna Davis, who is no longer able to run down to Scotts when she runs out of lettuce or other ingredients. “I have heard complaints from neighbors, especially from older people,” she said.
Added Jeff Atz, whose family has operated an ice cream and food shop on North Anthony since 1956: “I have heard comments from people who say they won't shop on Clinton. That store has been convenient for us and for our customers.”
If enough customers would indeed boycott Kroger's Clinton store to shop even farther away, that would provide an incentive to reopen. But a better goal would be for Jelh and others to make the location as attractive to Kroger as possible. As Jehl noted, the city could do such things as improve traffic access and expedite approval if reconstruction is necessary.
Good business deals don't tug at heartstrings. But they do offer the best long-term assurance that companies will be able to protect jobs, pay taxes and provide the services on which their customers depend.