Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Green Enough, Just Not Local Enough

One of the more amusing debates in Portland recently is whether the business climate is being restrained or lavished. If you ask the Portland Business Alliance, simply staying in town with their business is a gift that residents dare not refuse, for all the laws and fees "blocking" them. But ask a faction of Portland residents about projects Council is blowing millions on that benefit the business and medical communities, and they'll tell you City Hall has become an open till for the plundering. They both can't be right, can they?

Much as Portland would be shocked to discover, however, they are not the only city trying to find a balance between helping business thrive, and letting businesses help themselves needlessly. Eugene, perhaps the only city with an even higher granola index than Portland, is debating the development of a Whole Wallet..er, Foods grocery--for which the city will kick in a public parking garage gratis.

Whole Foods is part of what I call the Premium Lifestyle market movement that starts with prepared hot foods, moves into health and organic items, and reaches apex with whole-health boutiques of sensory felicitation. As a business model, the Texas company has done the nearly impossible: they figured out a way to increase margins on eggs, toilet paper, crackers and all kinds of stuff that grocery stores typically make no money on. Why buy eggs from frightened chickens, when you can get them from hens who romped free on untethered wildlands of dirt, rutting and shuffling around in God's sunlight? Only a dollar more!

Outrageous markup aside, Whole Foods is way green, so the lefties love it. And the downtown section of Eugene where the store is sited reportedly could use the lift:
"Developers won't build housing and people will not move to downtown in any numbers unless there is a supermarket," said John Rowell, an architect who purchased a building at Broadway and Willamette Street in 2004.

"For decades large-scale food markets have been unwilling to take the risk. Whole Foods is our pioneer."
Nonetheless, there is no escaping the tag of the heartless big box retailer--your square footage overrides your PR campaign. Vendors worry about being shut out of the market. Competitors say they'll be volume-d out of business. They can be as sustainable as they want to be, but the new thing now is not just organic, but LOCAL. The New York Times recently covered the local foods movement, exemplified best by the New Seasons chain in Portland. Unlike Whole Foods, each New Seasons store contracts with its own area farmers to supply itself. That kind of rural/urban economic partnership has a growing following in the Northwest.

Sure enough, citizen commenters who hung around as late as 1145pm in order to say their piece did not like the direction of the profit flow, back to Austin. Growers could not be supported, and jobs would be taken out of the local market loop. Despite all its progressive bonafides, to many speakers the bottom line was the loss of local control. Others must have appeared ready to slap the ideologues for being willing to toss aside a major project:
Kaz Oveissi, owner of four downtown businesses, said in his many years of living in Eugene finally "there is the promise of renewal" represented by the Whole Foods proposal.

The store would help the city achieve its longtime goal to have downtown grow and become more liveable," he said.

"The time is now," he said. "The opportunity is here."

Larry Reed said the previous City Council realized the "downtown was in decline and created the visionary downtown plan" that calls for public-private ventures, such as the Whole Foods project.

The "Keep It Local" sentiment won't revitalize downtown Eugene, he said.

Reed urged councilors not to "slap away this opportunity."

Tommorow's Council meeting is scheduled for a vote on the $8 million partnership. Will Big, Sustainable Business score a victory over the common vegan? We'll see.

Update, 3/16 430pm--
The vote was 5-2 in favor of Whole Foods. Over at Green Ink, they're not too pleased.