Thinking about big box stores

As I watched a videotape of the recent public hearing on the “Big Box” bill, I heard a unanimous concern for our community’s wellbeing, but very different opinions on how to ensure a good future for our island home.

Although more individuals spoke at the public hearing against the Big Box bill, the count changes if you include the nearly 100 small businesses supporting the bill that were represented by just one speaker on behalf of the Kapa‘a Business Association. It is true there were 800 signatures submitted against the bill, but there were about as many submitted for the bill. In the end, it comes down to the issues — the facts, our assumptions and our values as a community.

So let’s discuss those.

First, let me state five assumptions.

One: Wal-Mart has been a good neighbor and business on Kaua‘i.

Two: this bill is not about Wal-Mart, it’s about whether Kaua‘i wants to become a place of big box stores.

Three: there is no question that big box stores will bring some benefits. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the negative impacts. Are the lower prices worth Kaua‘i gradually becoming “anywhere USA” and less attractive to visitors and residents? Big boxes may create more jobs, but if they cause a loss of jobs from small businesses closing down, is that a net benefit? And what are the consequences of a larger proportion of Kaua‘i’s economic wealth being owned and controlled by global corporations rather than local families and corporations?

Four: Small businesses are not perfect, but they are the backbone of our economy and provide many benefits (jobs, profits back into the local economy, donations to local causes, a sense of history and a commitment to the community) which should not be overlooked.

Five: As we approach a global decline in oil resources, we will not be able to rely on the assumption of cheap food from big box stores.

The biggest argument for big box stores is lower food prices. I was touched by testimonies from Georgina Mahi, Kim Handy and others about families struggling to make ends meet and how a few dollars saved make a huge difference for them. If we look at the big picture rather than just food costs, however, we’ll see that a more effective long-term solution is to significantly reduce the big costs that are draining our families. If we can provide affordable housing, transportation, energy and health care, more money could go towards food — a fact that Mrs. Mahi confirmed when she mentioned that there is only a little left for food after mortgage and car payments.

The council is presently considering an affordable housing bill. If we enact the concept of permanent affordability, Kaua‘i will be on the path to controlling the first big basic cost of living. Likewise, there are ways to address the three other major costs of living, but they are beyond the scope of this article.

In the long run, the goal of lower food costs will not be assured by big box stores. According to Richard Heinberg, an expert on “peak oil,” approximately 350 gallons of oil equivalents are required to feed each person in the United States each year, and every calorie of food produced requires an average of 10 calories of fossil-fuel inputs. As Heinberg points out, this leaves our food system vulnerable at every level to fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices, both of which he believes to be inevitable. (Heinberg’s entire speech is available at

The truth of Heinberg’s statements can be seen by the gas prices of Costco — cheaper, true, but still ever rising. At some point, “cheaper” will become “too expensive” in a petroleum-based society. The real solution to ever rising food costs is more complex than just allowing big box stores, and I hope we will be able to discuss this issue as a community very soon.

Now, let us look at the negative impacts big box stores could have on our island community.

First and foremost, big boxes are contrary to our community’s General Plan goal for the island — that is, to retain the rural character of Kaua‘i. This goal was identified by the community not just to preserve a quality of life that many cherish, but also to provide a strong foundation for our visitor economy. It also preserves a choice most of America no longer has — to be a unique, rural place. The Big Box bill alone will not achieve this goal, but it is part of the solution, just like our four-story height limit. We’re not telling the Wal-Marts or Sheratons not to do business on Kaua‘i; we’re simply asking them to do business on terms designed to preserve and protect our quality and way of life.

Big box retailers could have a devastating impact on Kaua‘i’s small businesses. If Kaua‘i had a population of a million people, big box stores might make sense, since there would be a bigger economic pie to go around. However, Kaua‘i’s daily population of 80,000 to 90,000 is considerably smaller and much more vulnerable to economic saturation. If big box stores come into Kaua‘i, what good is it if they destroy the small businesses that give life and character to our small towns? While it’s true that Ace Hardware survived the introduction of Home Depot to Kaua‘i, smaller stores in outlying areas may not be as resilient (Ace is a national franchise), and it will be too late to introduce a big box bill after the small stores fail. Courts have upheld measures to control scale and size as a legitimate exercise of the community’s power to plan and shape it destiny.

Allowing big box retailers also goes contrary to the goal of creating and preserving communities in which basic services are accessible via a 10-minute walk or a short car or bike ride. As the world’s oil reserves dwindle and gas prices rise ever higher, it’s essential that services remain available in towns like Koloa, Hanalei, Waimea and Kapa‘a — not just at a few centrally located big box outlets.

We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot expect all of the benefits of a rural environment as well as the services of a large city. We don’t want to wake up one day like the people of Maui and ask, “What happened to the Maui that I love?”

The people of Kaua‘i have chosen over and over again to preserve and protect the unique character of our island through the four-story height limit, by stopping resort development at Maha‘ulepu, by saving Hanalei Bridge. …

Those choices have served us well. It’s why visitors come to Kaua‘i today. It’s why many people have come to Kaua‘i to live. It’s what’s kept Kaua‘i Kaua‘i, and that is worth a lot.

• JoAnn A. Yukimura is a member of the Kaua‘i County Council.


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