At a forum on June 21, 2016 in Becket, when moderator Smitty Pignatelli asked whether Wal-Mart should be coming to the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA), Adam Hinds said (in an effort to not spoil an endorsement from the Mayor of Pittsfield), “It’s up to them.” I understand that Wal-Mart is standing outside its Pittsfield store getting signatures for the new Super Wal-Mart. (They don’t explain the new Wal-Mart will be at PEDA, but that’s another conversation.) While I certainly can understand the case for a Super Wal-Mart, and I can see why Adam Hinds is unwilling to ruffle the feathers of the mayor, I think it is possible to show respect for the mayor but stand-up for an issue that will have serious consequences on the regional economy. Unlike Mr. Hind’s position in Becket, I am opposed to the Super Wal-Mart at PEDA.
At a debate in Lenox on August 7th, while both my opponents made some passing words about Wal-Mart not being an ideal employer, both took the position “It’s up to Pittsfield.” I would respectfully argue that they do not fully understand that this is regional issue and the role of a state senator—the Fort Devens model, which I have talked so much about, took state legislation and state legislatures to push it.
Against this epic failure of PEDA, I can understand why there are those that want a super-Wal-Mart. Smart, intelligent people can make an appealing case for it and I can definitely see its merits. The argument for a Super Wal-Mart goes something like this: (1) PEDA is an epic failure, (2) the developers will spend 12 million in developing the site, roughly 6 million to crumble a concrete foundation and cap it, and 6 million for water drainage, an expenditure others do not want to make and making it prohibitively expensive for industrial development, (3) the developers and not GE must clean up the PCB-laden foundations, as well as pay for the storm drainage system to prevent PCB contamination of Sliver Lake or Unkamet Brook, (4) Wal-Mart would pay roughly $300,000 to $500,000 in taxes per year, and (5) it would provide groceries to an area that is a “food desert.”
- PEDA could be turned into a non-failure, and the next Fort Devens or Albany nanotechnology center
To this first argument I respond, PEDA is indeed an epic failure, but we have neither implemented the Fort Devens and/or the Albany nanotechnology model. In short, PEDA was done wrong, and very wrong. If we fail to get (and maintain) high-wage, quality jobs, the area is literally doomed to massive economic failure. As bad as things are now, worse is possible when the GE pensioners start to die. The price of failure, as we are already painfully experiencing, is too great to bear.
In a famous quote appearing in an iberkshires.com July 8th article, “Wal-Mart Refute’s Candidates Criticism of Pittsfield Plan,” “Walmart’s Director of Public Affairs & State and Local Government Relations Chris Buchanan says, ‘holding out hope for industrial development of the site does a disservice to the residents of Pittsfield.’” Wal-Mart could not be any clearer: Wal-Mart argues that the very purpose of PEDA is hopeless and that we should succumb to a Super Wal-Mart. The districts residents should ask itself, is holding out hope for industrial development (or other high paying white collar jobs) at PEDA a “disservice” as the champions of the Super Wal-Mart literally appear to claim?
I believe we as a district have been too negative about the prospects of getting high wage jobs back in the region. They did in Fort Devens. They did it at the Albany Nanotechnology Institute. We could do it here. If we follow these models, industrial or white-collar development of the site is possible.
- The plan was to build on the existing foundations, not spend $6 million on crumbling them and spending another $6 million on water drainage.
As to the second argument (2), that Super Wal-Mart will pay for disposal of the foundation and for water drainage, we have been clearly misled and this requires further investigation. Remember, I have institutional memory in a way that most others do not. In those years of 2004-2005, I had gone to several presentations of PEDA at City Hall, and I met with PEDA’s director, Mr. Thomas Hickey himself. We were told the site was ready to go.
The original plan was to use the GE buildings. PEDA once claimed to have 100,000 square feet of space available. Then they razed the buildings, which to us at the time seemed perfectly suitable for industry, especially light industry. (They were used for heavy industry). Remember, PEDA once advertised that this space was usable. Doing an about face and claiming the buildings were too exposed to PCBs, they razed them. We were mortified. No more free building space.
Then the plan was to allow others to build on the footprints of the old GE buildings, now that the buildings themselves were razed, using the existing foundations. Thus, the plan never was to crush the foundation for $6 million and “line and cap” it (a technology which has been decried by many environmentalists as not effective in the long run), and invest in another $6 million for new storm water drainage. The plan was to simply rebuild on the existing foundations on a site that was ready to go—this space could have been given away to a qualifying entity, with of course, claw back provisions if commitments are not met. Building on the existing foundation was always the plan—not trying to sell industrial land at a cost prohibitive price. (As an aside, there are those that think the $6 million for storm water drainage or the $6 million to remove and crumble the foundation is an inflated figure given to sell the project.)
Those foundations are solid because they were built to be bomb-proof and are extremely thick and resilient. When I spoke to one of the engineers at the open house at Hotel on North on June 28th, he indicated to me that he knew of nothing wrong with the foundation or any reason why they could not be used. Granted, when you look at foundations, they hardly look like squares of freshly poured concrete with a surface so flat you can play pool on it. But this hardly suggests that a 15 foot concrete, bomb-proof foundation could not be used and their engineer did not indicate that the foundation was unusable.
- I have no confidence that proper legal due diligence has been done to come to the conclusion that GE need not clean up the PCB-laden foundations, or that GE need not pay for the storm drainage system to prevent PCB contamination of Sliver Lake or Unkamet Brook.
There is also a dubious legal and practical argument, that (3) the EPA imposes an obligation on developers and not GE to clean up the site from PCB’s in foundations, or to create proper storm drainage to prevent further PCB contamination of surrounding water ways. Waterstone wants to develop the site and put a Super Wal-Mart there. So Waterstone claims, “The City and/or PEDA could save approximately $6 million in EPA mandates from the replacement of the storm water discharge system as a result of Waterstone’s private development of this site.” They further argue, “Without Waterstone’s plan, the contamination at the site will continue to dissuade development, as it has for nearly two decades.” Implied in this, is an argument that GE has met its obligation to clean up the area, and that there are “EPA mandates” regarding “the replacement of storm water discharge” that, so it is argued, do not rest solely on the shoulders of GE.
The Consent Decree itself is an interminable document 499 page document, with fat appendixes, and the appendixes themselves have “additions,” amounting to one massive document. There is one at the Berkshire Athenaeum, among other places. (A copy is also available online, but this is not everything.) I have looked at the entire Consent Decree for 45 minutes, which was enough time to appreciate that there would be countless man-hours attempting to figure out GE’s obligation. If the foundations are really totally infused with PCBs, it would seem that GE should have to pay for the cost of their removal.
Moreover, it would seem that the obligation to properly channel storm water to prevent further contamination by PCB from entering Silver Lake or Unkamet Brook should be a GE obligation. I simply have no confidence that this cost is properly born by the developer under the consent decree, and not GE. I suspect that the legal due diligence has either not been done or is being ignored. I have serious concerns that the notion that PCB remediation of the foundations is a developer’s problem and not GE’s is a false premise. I also am doubtful of the claim that developers and not GE must create proper storm water drainage to prevent PCP contamination of local waters (such as Silver Lake, Unkamet Brook). While I don’t know the answer for certain because I have not invested tremendous hours performing the legal research, I just doubt that GE is off the hook for bona fide PCB contamination under the Consent Decree and have no confidence that the proper legal analysis and due diligence has been performed.
The EPA has a summary of the Consent Decree (which is not the legal document itself). Simply put, it superficially appears (looking at the EPA summary) that GE is responsible for the clean-up of the PCB’s in the ground soil.
- Wal-Mart would pay roughly $300,000 to $500,000 in taxes per year, but they would pay if they located elsewhere or remained in their existing location
The reason that Wal-Mart wants this property is that it located right on Route 9 with a lot of traffic. But the spot is also prime industrial space because it has access to rail—and an industrial spot with access to rail is not a common commodity. Wal-Mart, of course, pays taxes where it presently is. And maybe they could locate in other locations, such as on outer West-Housatonic Street, on Route 20, across from McDonald’s where the “Big N,” the “Silver Screen,” or “Simmons furniture” used to be located. That would be another high traffic area, with all the tax benefits, using a space for its zoned use.
- The argument that a Super Wal-Mart would provide groceries to an area that is a “food desert” might violate the Consent Decree, and is grossly offset by its loss.
I have heard from several sources that under the Consent Decree, food cannot be sold on the premises of the former GE, but I cannot find that provision. I would admit that if I lived in the Morningside area and did not have a car, it would be convenient to be able to shop at the Super Wal-Mart. Of course, the argument that the Super Wal-Mart would end a food desert would have to include the premise that another grocery store in another would-be food desert (but for that store) will not close due to the competition—hardly a safe bet. In fact, Wal-Mart is famous for its “Wal-Mart effect,” which is to cause the close of stores. It is eminently possible that when Wal-Mart enters the picture, other grocery stores might close in other areas of the city that might then become a new food desert.
The problem with this argument that food availability would be created in a food desert is that the loss is staggeringly serious and could not possibly outweigh the gain. We would lose industrial land with rail access. Moreover, may industrial users or even business users would not want to move right next to a retail store/grocery store. Wal-Mart moving in may be the end of PEDA. The developers justify walking away from industrial development of PEDA by essentially arguing that the hope for industrial development or white-collar wages is a pipe dream. After all, so they argue, it has been a failure for some time now. But Fort Devens is not a failure, nor the Albany Nanotechnology Institute. If they did it, we can too.
WAL-MART Is Not An Ideal Employer
The economic benefits of a Wal-Mart store are dubious. I recently met an old acutance of mine who worked at Wal-Mart. He was hoping to become a full-time employee. He told me that they did not want to give him full time employment because they did not want to provide him health insurance.
Wal-Mart is famous for not paying its employees enough, not providing them health insurance, or if they do, grotesquely inadequate health insurance. They also are infamous for relying on government services to keep their employees afloat: Wal-Mart is on welfare. This while the Walton Family of Wal-Mart, worth $ 149 billion, has more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans.
While Wal-Mart may pay taxes, it often has a devastating economic effect on the economy. Stores often close down. Often three jobs are lost for every job created.
SOURCE: You-Tube video documentary on Wal-Mart, “The high cost of low price.” (A 1 hour and 37 minute documentary).