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What’s our brand?

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There are some locations around the world that have found ways to brand themselves in such a way that their products and/or services can be sold at a premium: Champagne for wine, Gruyères for cheese, the Hamptons or Martha’s Vinyard for summer fun and second-home heaven. The relationship of brand to economic welfare is clear: a brand gives some place, business, or group a unique identity for the goods and services that it sells. And to the extent that pricing depends on supply and demand, things that are unique or scarce can be priced higher than things that are like a large number of other things.

In economic parlance, the latter are called “commodities,” and include items like grain or gold that are fungible; that is, grain or gold from one place can, in general, be interchanged with grain or gold from another place without anybody being able to tell the difference. Because of this, the pricing of commodities is determined by global market forces of supply and demand, out of control of the individual producers.

The Pure Catskills campaign is probably the most successful effort that has been made so far to brand our own region. It emphasizes small-scale agriculture, sustainable production methods, craft food and beverage items like cheese and beer, and the abundant and unspoiled natural resources that underlie our products.

But there is a great countervailing force against the branding of place in the world today, and it is the chain store or, as it is sometimes called, the formula business model. It is characterized by national or international retailers like Walmart or McDonalds, who establish their own brand by stamping it on every location in which they operate, with the same logos, color scheme, architecture and product lines. You can be on a retail strip anywhere in the world, and if it’s dominated by chain stores, you won’t be able to tell which country you’re in. Corporate identity trumps any sense of place.

That means that if you allow a formula retail business into your town, there is a risk that you’ll lose a piece of your own brand. If enough such stores move in, your town could become a mere commodity: Anywhere, USA. Tourists are not going to travel from metropolitan or suburban areas to be near McDonalds, Walmart and Dollar General, just as prospective second-home owners from such areas, a major driver of our local economy for decades, will not buy houses in such a location. They will prefer areas where historical architecture combines with natural amenities, unique businesses and a strong sense of community to create a distinctive sense of place.

Dollar General has obviously targeted the Upper Delaware as a locus of expansion, and that’s not necessarily all bad. Some of its target sites make sense. The store in White Lake, for instance, is located a distance from the hamlet on 17B, an established commercial corridor, on a site that was clear-cut years ago, next to a CITGO station.

But there are other locations, like the one proposed for the heart of the hamlet of Eldred in the Town of Highland, NY (see story on page 1 of last week’s issue), that give one pause. Whatever the economic benefits—and clearly there are some, like reducing the distances town residents must travel to obtain certain goods—one must ask whether the damage such a store could do to the town’s brand may, in the long run, more than offset any benefits. What will happen to tourist traffic? What will happen to second-home demand? Will any addition to the tax base be more than offset by reductions in residential property values or flight of second-home owners?

Zoning provides tools that can be used to control whether, and where, and how formula businesses can locate in our towns (see the excellent exposition at tinyurl.com/os2d5bj). According to that document, the granting or denying of area variances, which was at issue at last week’s Highland Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, is one of the weaker of those tools. The ZBA denial may nevertheless wind up sidetracking this particular small-box development—that remains to be seen. Even if not, planning board review would at least provide a venue to mitigate aesthetic and environmental impacts.

But the controversy is a wakeup call to all of us to take another look at our own town ordinances, and ask whether we are satisfied with the power they give us to protect our brands in the face of chain store development. The homogenizing forces of formula businesses, like the high-impact industrial activity that many of our local towns dealt with in revising their ordinances only a few years ago, could threaten our small-town rural character. We should make sure our toolboxes contain everything we need to make sure that our brand is the one that prevails.

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