Proposed Wal-Mart's impact stretches beyond town borders

First published: July 5, 2000

The impact of the proposed power stores on Strathy Road reach far beyond Cobourg, but there has been little consideration given beyond the town’s borders.

The Malone, Given, Parsons’s study of the market demand and impact analysis is written to focus on Cobourg. In defining its purpose, the study says it is looking at how much new commercial space can be developed “without negatively affecting the viability and planned commercial functions of commercial nodes in Cobourg”. The downtown is given special consideration.

The draft study is paid for by Royal Cobourg Centres Ltd., the company wanting to develop the Strathy Road lands. It wants to develop 46 acres, including 230,000 square-foot retail power centre and a business park. About 105,000 square-feet will be a discount department store (likely Wal-Mart) and 60,000 square-feet will be a supermarket (likely Loblaws).

While the study clearly focuses on Cobourg, there is no doubt the developer is looking at drawing business from across Northumberland County. The executive summary defines the trade area reaching east to Cramahe and Percy townships and west to Hope Township and Port Hope. The draft report bounces between talking about this large trade area and the town.

One of the strongest arguments made in support of the big box stores is its ability to draw shoppers who are currently going outside the area. In the report it is called “outflow spending”. The report suggests Cobourg needs to recapture this lost spending potential.

That certainly makes sense. There has been lots of talk in the past about keeping people in our area to spend their money. But there is also a hint these big box stores would draw people from outside our region. Again, there is little room to argue about the need to do this as well.

That is why on Wednesday at a public meeting, the 60 residents and business owners, who came to give their opinion, were talking about details like the timing of the project and other considerations. There is almost no opposition. That is a far cry from five years ago when the naysayers thundered away at local politicians, predicting the demise of the local economy.

Planner Glenn McGlashon says the tone has changed because we have seen the impact of Wal-Mart on other areas, like Belleville, Trenton and Peterborough. Rather than the decimation that was predicted, retailers in these cities have adjusted and survived. He figures local businesses are not as nervous and are prepared to compete. In fact, he believes the Cobourg business community wants a big drawing card, like these box stores, because there will be a trickle-down affect, as shoppers come to the big box to shop and then go to other stores and restaurants afterwards.

While this is all good for Cobourg, what about the surrounding area. Remember that the developers are eyeing a much larger trade area. There is no mention of how this will hit Port Hope’s downtown or Colborne’s newly renovated mainstreet.

Mayor Joan Chalovich is quick to point out Cobourg council’s responsibility is to the people who elected her and the other councillors (a.k.a. Cobourg). Any suggestion about consulting these other areas is dismissed. It is impossible to blame her or council for not wanting to seek input, since the town is still stinging from the last round of restructuring talks.

Which brings us to an important point. Clearly local politicians around West Northumberland have created an “us and them” mentality that serves no one. What should be considered is a “we” reasoning that aims to take in to account the overall good.

As long as economic development is viewed in this narrow us/them fashion, West Northumberland taxpayers are going to suffer. Port Hope and Colborne should be at the table and part of these discussions. There should not be any question. If retailers in those areas are shut down then jobs are lost, taxes are gone and we all end up paying the price.

There should also be a strategic plan for the entire retail sector for the region. This is not a new idea, but it needs to be addressed immediately. The Malone, Given, Parsons’s study should look deeply into these areas and presented clear statements, so an inclusive plan could be developed. It might also change the conclusions in the draft market analysis.

As long as there is a two-tiered municipal government, local politicians will justifiably play to the home audience who votes for them in the November municipal election. Chalovich and councillors would be hung for doing anything less. But overall, we suffer. Just look at the Great Dane fiasco when more than 500 manufacturing jobs were lost to Quinte West, to see another example of why we need a regional economic development plan.

The chambers of commerce and the downtown business associations should be clamoring at the doors of Victoria Hall to ensure we do not end up doing more damage than good. Then they should walk sharply up the road to the county building to put even more heat on county politicians to put aside their indecision, petty squabbling and gerrymandering for the good of everyone.

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