Limiting size of big box stores

Editor’s note: What follows is public testimony the author presented to the Kaua‘i Planning Commission on Tuesday.

by Charles Kawakami

I am here to support Zoning Amendments ZA-2007-4, ZA-2007-5, ZA-2007-6, and ZA-2007-7 proposed by Mayor Bryan Baptiste and the County Council, limiting the size of big box stores. I have never challenged any retail development in the past. I always felt that if you operate in the retail arena, competition is something one would have to deal with. My thoughts have changed since Costco opened and Wal-Mart is now proposing to build a Supercenter that will be about twice as large as their existing store. I base my current feeling on the following:

With the addition of Costco we are already over-retailed on the island of Kaua‘i. Our population is only 60,000. Costco has impacted our sales. A 200,000-square-foot supercenter will cause a lot of businesses to close their doors because there would not be enough customers to sustain all of the businesses on Kaua‘i. Our population base is too small.

The issue here is one of balance. We need viable retailers throughout our island instead of only in one central location. It is a quality of life issue. Do we want to have our rural residents have to travel to Lihu‘e to do all of their shopping? It is difficult to argue against lower prices. When you are one of the largest corporations in the world you can command lower prices from your suppliers. The smaller independent retailer does not have the clout as these giants so our prices will be higher. The question that I have is: Will the prices remain low when the Supercenter drives the other retailers out of business? They would have no reason to keep their prices lower without competition. Several years ago I was in North Carolina and saw first hand the effects of the Supercenters. They had Supercenters about every five miles and along with that there were shopping centers with quite a few stores that were shuttered. Do we want to see that on Kaua‘i? How are the seniors and others that have no transportation going to get to Lihu‘e to shop? Is our current transportation system adequate to handle the increase in passengers? The most important and last reason that I have is one of responsible planning. It seems that the priority for Kaua‘i today is one of good planning for the future. We have so many problems to address from uncontrolled growth, traffic problems, and infrastructure needs, to name a few. We have one chance to press the “pause” button and really do an assessment on the planning requirements for the future. The actions we take today will be irreversible in the future. We need to do responsible planning for the future of our island. A few weeks ago on ABC’s “Good Morning America” they had programming on the new seven wonders of the world. One of the segments was on the Northern Hawaiian Islands. They considered this area’s ecosystem so fragile that they had to do their segment from the North Shore of Kaua‘i which they considered as the start of the Northern Hawaiian Islands. We are truly blessed to be living in such a unique and beautiful place, let’s not ruin it for our future generations. I think visitors to our island come to enjoy the beauty and rural nature of Kaua‘i. Do they really want to see a Supercenter here on our beautiful Garden Island? We don’t need a Supercenter just yet.

It is difficult for me to be here today. Most of the supporters for the Supercenter will say that I am self-serving because I am trying to protect my businesses. For those of you who feel that way, I must admit that, “Yes, I am self-serving but not in the sense that I am selfishly trying to save my businesses.”

I will tell you if we had put all of the money we invested in our businesses in a CD at First Hawaiian Bank we would be way ahead of the game today. I am self-serving because I want to see the beauty and rural nature of our island preserved for the future generations to enjoy. We also want to continue to be part of the community we serve. We want to continue to see your children and grandchildren grow up and perhaps get their first jobs with us, like so many in the past, before they go on to bigger things. We want to continue to support all of the youth and other community organizations that ask us for help every day. We want to be able to help send our talented musicians to the Rose Bowl Parade or our young athletes to state and national tournaments. Yes, we are self-serving because it is important for us to be part of the communities we live and work in.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Mayor Baptiste and the County Council for introducing these zoning amendments. I would like to commend the planning commissioners for stepping forward and serving on a voluntary basis. You all do this without compensation except for a free lunch now and then. You are the gatekeepers and it is through you that we depend on the best for Kaua‘i’s future.

I have a few personal closing comments for the commissioners as they deliberate these zoning amendments: Wal-Mart is one of the largest corporations in the world. They are powerful financially and politically. They make the rules. They will come to you with their vast resources to convince you that low prices are good for the community. It is hard to dispute that argument but please remember that there is a downside to this in perhaps reduced services, higher prices, higher overall transportation and utility expenses when smaller businesses close down. You can also expect major traffic congestion in Lihu‘e.

Wal-Mart might start to make major contributions to community organizations to try to have these organizations sway public sentiment for their cause. This is a good gesture but your question to them is “Where were you this past 11 years?” and “Will you be making these contributions in the future?”

Wal-Mart might threaten to sue. They have done this in other communities and have lost.

Wal-Mart might threaten to close the store and move out of Kaua‘i. This may be unlikely but they have done it before. A few years ago one of their stores was being organized by the unions.

They told the unions to stop and when the union refused they closed the store and moved. Is that being a good neighbor? The commissioners need to ask Wal-Mart: Why Kaua‘i? We have only 60,000 residents. They say that this is a test. I find it hard to believe that they would spend millions of dollars to build the Supercenter and consider it to be a test. If this store is a stepping stone for future Supercenters throughout the state then they should state their intentions.

• Charles Kawakami is the president of Big Save Inc. and a resident of Kaua‘i.

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