Big box stores like Walmart are the poster-children for the homogenization of our country and the destruction of local economies. But what can you do when a corporation with unlimited capital starts eyeballing real estate in your town?
Well, if you’re like the folks in Saranac Lake, New York, you fight back.
The only department store in Saranac, a town of about 5,000 year-round residents, went bankrupt back in 2002. Since then, people in need of dry goods have had to drive over 50 miles to the nearest alternative.
When the Walmart corporation came sniffing around a few years ago, some residents of the tiny town were relieved, but most were indignant. They knew that if this discount behemoth was allowed to build its 120,000 sq. foot store in Saranac Lake, local businesses would be forced to close their doors forever.
Of course, this isn’t a new story. It’s been played out over and over in small to mid-sized communities all over the country. What is new is the way the people of Saranac Lake responded.
“Rather than accept their fate, residents of Saranac Lake did something unusual: they decided to raise capital to open their own department store. Shares in the store, priced at $100 each, were marketed to local residents as a way to “take control of our future and help our community,” said Melinda Little, a Saranac Lake resident who has been involved in the effort from the start. “The idea was, this is an investment in the community as well as the store.”
It took the town 5 years to raise the $500,000 needed to open their store, no easy feat considering the national recession. But just a few weeks ago in late October, the Saranac Lake Community Store celebrated its grand opening.
By 9:30 in the morning, the store, in a former restaurant space on Main Street opposite the Hotel Saranac, was packed with shoppers, well-wishers and the curious. The 4,000-square-foot space was not completely renovated — a home goods section will be ready for the grand opening on Nov. 19 — but shoppers seemed pleased with the mix of apparel, bedding and craft supplies for sale.
In a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement is highlighting economic disparity caused by mega-corps and political obstinacy, the Saranac Lake Community Store sends a powerful message about what a community can accomplish on its own. This store won’t suddenly close, putting hundreds out of work, because its CEO gambled away the profits. Neither will it suddenly pick up and move to the next town over, because property taxes are lower.
When community members band together to meet their own needs, rather than waiting for someone else to do it, they are empowered. And that’s something no one can take away.
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