Archive for the ‘Big Box Retail’ Category

Sears, Tax Breaks, and Job Loss: Like We Said

January 5, 2012
Image

Credit: Made available through a creative commons license from Flickr user gardener41

For the latest evidence that unaccountable tax breaks fail to promote investment for job creation, shop at Sears—while you still can.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature had barely dried on the Illinois legislature’s lavish new tax-break deal to retain Sears Holding Corp.’s headquarters when the company announced store closures and layoffs. The deal, valued at up to $275 million in property and income tax breaks, was signed into law on December 16. Yet on December 27, the company announced that it would close between 100 and 120 Kmart and Sears stores.

Cynically, we note that the initial list of 80 closures does not include any Illinois stores, nor have any headquarters layoffs been announced… yet. But with Sears still losing market share, and reporting another decline in same-store sales (down 5.2% late 2011 over late 2010), how safe can Illinois jobs be?

We hate to say we told Illinois so. But as we forecast in our blog of last August: when a company is ailing and it asks for a tax break, the wisdom of the plant-closings movement tells us: tax avoidance can be one form of disinvestment, another early warning sign of job loss.

Put another way: if a company doesn’t see a future in the community or the state, why should it keep investing in the schools or roads or universities?

Indeed, inadequate reinvestment in Sears has been a major theme since hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert took control of the company. As the New York Times’ Floyd Norris pointed out in a December 29 column, between February 2005 and October 2011, Sears Holdings spent only $3.2 billion on capital expenditures (i.e., physical improvements) while taking $6.6 billion in depreciation charges (i.e., physical wearing-out).

A consumer behavior consultant with America’s Research Group told the Los Angeles Times: “They are not fixing their problems. The Sears apparel strategy is still not what the Sears customer wants. They have not spent the money to refurbish their stores to make the modern and contemporary for the under-35 shopper.”

Instead of reinvesting, Sears Holdings is reportedly soon to allow some its prize jewels, such as Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools, to be sold by other chains such as Costco and Ace Hardware. Won’t that just further reduce traffic into Sears and Kmarts?

In lowering Sears Holdings’ credit rating, Fitch warned of “a heightened risk of restructuring over the next 24 months.”

Meanwhile, Illinois taxpayers, after giving Sears a retention package worth about $178 million in 1989 when it threatened to run away, have pledged up to $275 million more after a second runaway threat.

Fool me once, shame on you…

South Carolina says Good-bye to Amazon but Hello to even more Wal-Mart stores

May 5, 2011

(A follow-up to a story on sales tax exemption for Amazon in South Carolina from May 3, 2011, You can find everything on Amazon, except sales tax)

Small retailers in South Carolina must be asking themselves: if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and then we win, and then my “friend” resumes life as another huge enemy, should taxpayers subsidize our demise?

In an announcement that some called a political “payoff,” Wal-Mart and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced this week that the company will open dozens of new stores employing as many as 4,000 people in South Carolina over the next five years (of course, research suggests that Wal-Mart destroys 3 retail jobs for every 2 it “creates). It already has significant presence in the state with 74 stores, two distribution centers, and nine Sam’s Clubs.

The announcement came just a week after the South Carolina House rejected a bill that would give the online retailer Amazon an exemption from collecting sales tax on the state’s residents (as part of a larger subsidy package). One of the active opponents to the Amazon deal was Wal-Mart.

During the Amazon sales tax exemption debate, Wal-Mart, along with other big-box retailers, joined organizations representing small businesses in South Carolina to actively lobby against the deal. Besides its seven lobbyists  pressing the House, Wal-Mart encouraged its South Carolina employees to communicate their opposition to state representatives.   The retailer argued the Amazon exemption would be harmful and unfair to bricks-and-mortar stores. After the House rejected the deal, Amazon cancelled plans to open a distribution center in the state.

Reacting to this week’s Wal-Mart announcement, supporters of the Amazon deal said that Wal-Mart wanted to reward the Governor for her hands-off approach and the House for opposing the Amazon deal, calling the announcement “suspect,” a “shell game,” and “a payoff.”

Over the years, critics of Wal-Mart have pointed to the retailer’s low-wages, unaffordable benefits, lack of career paths for the majority of workers, contribution to sprawl,  and anti-unionism. Some in South Carolina point out now that the same small retailers that Wal-Mart “partnered” with against Amazon will likely become Wal-Mart’s victims as it gains market share by opening more supercenters. 

Wal-Mart’s rhetoric on the Amazon deal was quite ironic. It  argued that Amazon should not be granted sales tax exemption because it would give Amazon unfair advantage over other retailers. But Wal-Mart and developers who build for it are not shy about asking public officials for economic development subsidies that small retailers often consider an unfair advantage. In  Shopping for Subsides: How Wal-Mart Uses Taxpayers Money to Finance Its Never-Ending Growth, Good Jobs First documented that the retailer benefitted from $1 billion in such subsidies (later updated to $1.2 billion) from state and local governments. In South Carolina, for example, Wal-Mart enjoyed a $10 million deal from the City of North Charleston for infrastructure improvements at its supercenter, and a distribution center in Pageland got a deal worth of $28.2 million in various subsides.  (For a national compilation of such deals, see Good Jobs First’s Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch webpage).

Will locally owned retailers now remind Wal-Mart and elected officials about unfair advantage, whether it applies to Amazon or Wal-Mart? Or will the enemy of their enemy cash in as South Carolina subsidizes Wal-Mart’s new facilities?

New Jersey’s $1 Billion Subsidy Spree

May 4, 2011

Xanadu, an "offense to the eyes."

According to a new report released last week by New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a nonpartisan policy research center based in Trenton, Gov. Christie’s administration has awarded $822 million in economic development subsidies in its first 15 months in office.  A Surge in Subsidies documents the recent torrent of tax credit and grants awarded by the Economic Development Authority at a time when the state is slashing budget items for education, health, and social services.

NJPP examined just four of the state’s many economic development subsidy programs.  The controversial Business Employment Incentive Program redirects the personal income tax withholding of employees to participating businesses.  The recently enacted Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant (ERG) program has been used to approve awards totaling an astounding $351 million in diverted tax increments to New Jersey companies since February of 2010.  Once laudable for its geographic targeting, the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit is now used so extensively that it is poised to become a major revenue drain for the state.

Despite abundant criticism of recent deals such as the state’s decision to bail out a casino owned by Morgan Stanley ($261 million through ERG) and $101 million to relocate Panasonic’s North American headquarters just eight miles, New Jersey continues to dole out major subsidies.  Gov. Christie once called the stalled Xanadu mall project “an offense to the eyes as you drive up the turnpike.”  Now, he favors a $200 million tax break to rescue the project.

NJPP president Deborah Howlett notes that the Xanadu subsidy brings the 16-month subsidy spending total to over $1 billion, yet “all of that spending to spur job creation has had almost no effect on the unemployment rate.”

Colorado Proposal Would “STIF” Taxpayers

March 4, 2011

Buckingham Square Mall, Aurora, Colorado

The Colorado Senate is evaluating a risky new development subsidy proposal that passed in the House last week.  House Bill 1220 would, for the first time, allow the diversion of incremental state sales tax revenues to back bonds used to finance road construction for new retail projects.  Specifically, the bill would permit sales tax increment financing (STIF) to be used for projects that have been approved by the state department of transportation but lack dedicated state funding to secure federal highway matching funds.

The policy problems inherent in this bill are many.  STIF is designed to subsidize retail projects, ignoring the fact that they are not a very effective form of economic development.  Building new stores doesn’t grow the economy – it only shifts consumer spending from one place to another.  Providing subsidies to move low-wage retail jobs around a metro area is a waste of taxpayer funds.  The East-West Gateway Council of Governments (St. Louis metro region) found in its January 2011 study that the region had spent $4.6 billion subsidizing retail development between 1990 and 2007.  During that period, 5,700 new retail jobs were created in the metro area, at an apparent cost of $370,000 per job.

STIF makes a poor economic development tool for other reasons as well.  Sales tax receipts are unpredictable, especially during leaner economic periods.  Determining the value of the incremental increase in sales tax revenues is nearly impossible if assessors attempt to estimate how much retail spending is “new” and how much was merely cannibalized from nearby retail establishments.  STIF also promotes the fiscalization of land use—the unwise practice of letting tax revenue considerations control planning decisions.  California repealed STIF in 1993 to avoid this problem.  Colorado’s proposal is worse because it would only subsidize new retail developments that rely on highway access, making it biased against existing retailers in urban centers.

Another important consideration is that Colorado can’t afford to sacrifice the existing sales tax revenues that it would lose to STIF-subsidized development.  As a TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) state, Colorado cannot raise new revenues without statewide voter approval.  This is likely the reason that the development lobby is seeking this subsidy in the first place.  As a result of the economic recession and TABOR, Colorado’s fiscal crisis is so dire that the state cannot afford to fund highway transportation projects despite the fact that federal matching funds are on the table.

HB 1220 would sidestep the appropriations process for funding highway construction, shortchange the state’s sales tax revenue collection, subsidize the relocation of low-wage jobs in suburban fringe areas, and contribute to the growing list of dead malls in Colorado.

Report: Walmart State and Local Tax Avoidance Exceeds $400 Million Annually

February 23, 2011

Walmart’s U.S. operations deprive state and local governments of more than $400 million a year through a variety of tax avoidance schemes, according to a report released today by Good Jobs First, a non-profit, non-partisan research center based in Washington, DC. The report, Shifting the Burden for Vital Public Services, is available at no cost on the Good Jobs First website at www.goodjobsfirst.org.

“Walmart likes to claim that its stores are an economic boon to local communities,” said Philip Mattera, research director of Good Jobs First and author of the report. “But the fact is that the company tries hard to reduce the revenue stream going to state and local governments.” Walmart does this, the report notes, through methods such as the following:

  • seeking lucrative property tax abatements, tax increment financing, infrastructure assistance and other forms of economic development subsidies that in recent years have amounted to roughly $70 million annually;
  • using gimmicks such as deducting rent payments made to itself (through a captive real estate investment trust) to avoid an estimated $300 million a year in state corporate income tax payments;
  • using an army of lawyers and consultants to systematically challenge its assessments and chip away at its property tax bills, costing local governments several million dollars a year in lost revenues and legal expenses; and
  • taking advantage – to the tune of about $60 million a year – of those states that fail to cap the “vendor discounts” they provide to large retailers for collecting sales taxes from their customers

“These practices are not illegal,” notes Good Jobs First Executive Director Greg LeRoy, “but taken together they deprive state and local governments of a sizeable amount of revenue desperately needed for vital public services such as education and public safety.”

Shifting the Burden for Vital Public Services is a synopsis of a series of reports previously issued by Good Jobs First on Walmart’s practices regarding economic development subsidies, property taxes and sales taxes, along with a review of research on the company’s state corporate income tax avoidance. It also contains updated information on those practices.

Bass Pro Exposé: Reeling in Subsidies

June 9, 2010

The Public Accountability Initiative in Buffalo has just released an excellent national investigation of big-box retailer Bass Pro. It finds that the privately-held company has been given more than half a billion dollars in economic development subsidies, yet in many cases, the arrival of a Bass Pro store has not resulted in the revitalization, tax revenues or job creation that the company touts. For example:

 “A Mesa, AZ development anchored by a Bass Pro has been described as a ‘ghost town’ and ‘dead’ and spurred the state to pass a ban on retail subsidies.”

 “A taxpayer-subsidized Harrisburg, PA Bass Pro is struggling to attract tenants to the mall it anchors, leading to lawsuits, stalled renovations, and increasing stigma. Though the Bass Pro was expected to hire 300-400 employees according to initial projections, it had hired only 101 employees three years after opening.”

 “Bass Pro has gone on a building spree over the past ten years that significantly undermines its claims that each new store is a major tourist destination. Bass Pro sometimes builds stores in close proximity to each other, despite having promised to maintain a store’s attraction as a retail destination that will draw visitors from hundreds of miles away.”

The study, “Fishing for Taxpayer Cash,” figures into a hot debate in Buffalo, where Bass Pro has been offered $35 million, as part of a $154 million overall project package, to build a store. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation hopes the Bass Pro shop will anchor a comeback of an area in the noisy shadow of elevated Interstate 190 close to the shore of Lake Erie.

The deal has been long-delayed and hotly contested, as a coalition of more than 40 community groups, the Canal Side Community Alliance, has come together to demand a Community Benefits Agreement, including living wages for permanent employees, green building standards, and space for local merchants. The City owns much of the land in the project footprint, and the Buffalo Common Council, in response to the Community Alliance, has passed a resolution essentially saying “no Community Benefits Agreement, no land transfer.”

Followers of Good Jobs know that we have long been critical of big-box subsidies like those to Wal-Mart and to mall giants like General Growth Properties, and we strongly recommend Stacy Mitchell’s seminal book Big-Box Swindle. And we have written articles in both progressive and conservative journals about the unusual subsidy dispute among top three outdoor sporting goods chains (Gander Mountain versus Bass Pro and Cabela’s).

Led by Community Groups, Newly Elected Officials Put Accountable Development in NYC on Front Burner

February 22, 2010

The rotten political culture in New York has forced ordinary New Yorkers to become increasingly savvy at making their voices heard, particularly when it comes to big development projects. And it’s making a difference. Advocates in the Northwest Bronx, for example, led by the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), spent years organizing for a plan for the Armory that would bring good, permanent jobs to neighborhood residents. In a dramatic climax at the end of 2009 to their dogged efforts, they managed to defeat a proposal that fell short of these basic standards.

Blocking the city’s determination to take the low road represents remarkable progress, but what New York desperately needs is development policies that guarantee concrete benefits for local residents. Could a brand new crop of elected officials who are talking tough on accountable development provide a critical moment for advocates to finally accomplish just that?

Early signs are promising. Take the city’s new Comptroller John Liu, who spiced up February’s board meeting of the New York City Industrial Development Agency by voting ‘no’ on tax breaks for several projects, including a Western Beef grocery store proposed for the Bronx that, according to its application for benefits, would pay employees an average wage of about $19,000 a year with no benefits. Stating his concern that the current system lacks “clear processes and standards for project development and approval,” Liu pledged to “examine how scarce public resources are used to advance our City’s economic development.”

The proposed Western Beef would fulfill an urgent need for grocery retailers in this part of New York City, but Liu’s call to examine IDA’s way of doing things more closely could lead to more analysis of the consequences of subsidizing companies that pay poverty wages in order to address other legitimate problems such as food deserts.

Just over a week after his debut at the board meeting, Liu was at it again, suggesting in a bold op-ed in the Daily News that New York is behind other cities like Los Angeles and Milwaukee in embracing equitable economic development policies, a point neighborhood advocates have also fought hard to convey. He called for city developers to stop “stifling” neighborhood voices, and for remarkably high standards of transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness in Community Benefits Agreements, a promising tool that has thus far proven little more than a sham in New York City.

Other public officials appear to be hopping on the accountable development train, too. In another recent Daily News op-ed, the city’s newly-elected Public Advocate Bill de Blasio toughly proposed a citywide code of conduct for businesses that receive public subsidies, and called for requiring firms to pay a prevailing wage, and to stay neutral when workers try to form a union. These are all positive signs that some of the city’s newly elected officials may have gotten the message that voters have long been pushing. Now is a critical time for advocates to stay on alert and keep these officials on the right track.

Not to deny the handful of veteran public officials who have been pressing for policy reform, like Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who has been advocating for stronger accountability at the New York City Industrial Development Agency for some time now. Stringer’s appointee to the IDA board, Kevin Doyle, stands out as one of the few board members willing to ask challenging questions about IDA’s decision-making processes.

In addition to ensuring that large development projects are a boon to local residents, creating more equitable development policies will also help exorcise the larger culture of corruption that bedevils the city and state. This was most recently played out in the indictment of Bronx City Councilman Larry B. Seabrook on charges that he stole cash from the city through a series of money laundering schemes, including one connected with the new Yankee Stadium. It’s all too easy to view such scandals as the bad behavior of stray individuals, and stop there. But by condoning a process that excludes community input and encourages wheeling and dealing behind closed doors over transparent, democratic means, our current approach to development reinforces the very culture that incubates such tainted public officials.

Ordinary New Yorkers are clearly prepared to keep fighting for a different way. Hopefully Liu and de Blasio will do them justice by continuing to show real leadership on these issues, creating momentum for other elected officials to fall in line.



Runaround on Job Numbers for Stimulus-Financed City Point Project

September 18, 2009

Is the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) cooking up different sets of job numbers for the City Point project depending on its audience?

Conflicting figures in hearings, meetings, official documents, and the press over the past week are cause for some raised eyebrows at the very least.

City Point is a large mixed-use project planned for Downtown Brooklyn that was just approved for $20 million in tax-free financing in the form of Recovery Zone Facility Bonds (RZFBs), a new program created by the federal stimulus bill (ARRA). The bonds are intended to finance the project’s first phase, consisting of 184,000 square feet of retail space.

Brooklyn activists testified against the deal at a September 10 public hearing on grounds that EDC is failing to leverage the subsidies to ensure jobs will pay a living wage, provide benefits, and go to local residents. Activists also want to see 10 percent of space in the new facility set aside and made affordable for small businesses that were displaced to make way for City Point.

But it’s hard to stay focused on issues of job quality when you have to spend time sorting through the different claims on job numbers.

Here’s a breakdown:

Those who testified on the project did so based on a formal cost/benefit analysis posted on EDC’s website shortly before the hearing. In these documents, EDC projected that City Point will create 68 new permanent jobs and 108 construction jobs during the first phase of construction. (This round of bonds is only intended to finance the first phase, not the entire development.)

Less than a week later, on September 15, EDC staff told New York City Capital Resource Corporation (CRC) board members who were to vote on the allocation that the project would generate 208 permanent jobs and 328 construction jobs. (CRC is part of EDC.) According to EDC, these higher numbers incorporate jobs projected for a later phase of the project that has nothing to do with the current bond allocation, but which they believe will be indirectly catalyzed by completion of the first phase.

A majority of CRC board members voted to approve the financing.

EDC also touted the bigger numbers to the media, though a typo in their September 15 press release on the project explains why Amanda Fung reported in Crain’s New York Business that City Point would create 108 (rather than 208) permanent jobs, and 328 construction jobs.

These inconsistencies look especially bad in light of passionate participation at the three and a half hour hearing on September 10. Turnout was impressive. There was real debate. It was democracy in action.

But the EDC’s handling of these numbers undermines that process.

It’s misleading for EDC to promote figures that were not included in its official analysis, and that the public wasn’t given. Shouldn’t board members vote on the project based on the same numbers furnished to the public?

Brooklyn Activists Fight Use of Stimulus Bonds for Gentrification Plan

September 8, 2009

Thanks to the federal stimulus bill, a new tax-exempt bond has hit the market: “Recovery Zone Facility Bonds” (RZFBs). And while that phrase might make your eyes glaze over, keep reading, because initial indicators of how these bonds might be allocated in New York City are cause for heightened alert.

RZFBs are one of several new bond programs created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). As the name suggests, they must be used for projects within designated “recovery zones,” the boundaries of which are determined by the bond issuer (in New York State this means Industrial Development Agencies) based on indicators of “economic distress.”

RZFBs are a type of private activity bond that make commercial and industrial projects easier to finance because the bondholder does not have to pay federal, state, or local taxes on interest generated by the deal, and is thus willing to accept a lower interest rate.

It’s difficult to evaluate the RZFB program so far because states across the country—including New York—are still grappling with how to take advantage of it. New York City is the exception. The Bloomberg Administration has started things off with a bang by selecting a controversial project in downtown Brooklyn called “City Point” to receive financing through these new bonds. If the deal goes down, City Point developer Albee LLC would receive $20 million in tax-free financing for a shopping mall that will likely be anchored by a big box store such as Target.

This isn’t the first round of public money sought by this project—subsidies were approved in 2007, but then fell through due to difficulty in securing financing after the economic meltdown. Now, Albee LLC is looking to the stimulus bill for help.

Advocacy groups on the ground, led by Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), are experiencing déja-vu. Having resisted the 2007 deal, they will oppose this round of subsidies on many of the same grounds at a public hearing scheduled for September 10. But they will have plenty to beef about without reminding the city that the site was home to the old Albee Square Mall, which was demolished in 2007 to make way for City Point. That demolition displaced scores of longtime local business that catered mostly to Brooklyn’s black community. Those stores were at odds with the city’s vision of a newly gentrified downtown, which favors chains like H&M and Bed Bath and Beyond. None of the displaced businesses were given the option to return once the new facility is built, and no requirements for local hiring or living-wage jobs were tied to the 2007 deal, despite fervent protest.

This history lesson should be the backdrop to the bigger question of whether retail development should ever receive public financing. Asking whether more Targets and Wal-Marts are really what so-called distressed communities really need is not a radical question at this point. It is well established that such economic development strategies amount to a subsidization of poverty, since retail jobs are among the lowest-paid. As an alternative, FUREE is pushing for an affordable grocery store in downtown Brooklyn, which is lacking in healthy food options.

Good Jobs New York is keeping an eye on the City Point project, as more communities across the country recognize the dangers of subsidies for retail development, and are organizing to avoid them. There may be a bright spot to this story in the Bronx: The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment plan—also slated to receive public subsidies—is emerging as a model of how development in New York City might be done. Due to effective community organizing, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz recently announced his commitment to signing a Community Benefits Agreement with the developer that includes a living wage, local hiring and community space among a long list of points. So stay tuned!

Note: This item is crossposted on the Good Jobs First’s STAR Coalition blog. (more…)

Standing Strong at the Kingsbridge Armory

September 8, 2009

esnuestroIn a move rarely seen in The Bronx lately, an elected official is standing up for the creation of good jobs and accountable development. Newly elected Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has voted no on a land use proposal to build a subsidized mall inside the Kingsbridge Armory because the developer refused to sign a community benefits agreement.

This must come as a shock to Related Companies, which plans to develop the mall and has gotten subsidies and sweetheart real estate deals from the city in the past. Related was awarded the contract to purchase the armory from the mayoral-controlled Economic Development Corporation for the bargain basement price of $5 million. The armory is a landmarked building that spans an entire city block, has a new roof, and is directly across the street from a subway and bus lines. 

The city seemed to move in the right direction in 2006 by involving community leaders in developing a Request for Proposal and including language that applicants supporting a living wage provision for the permanent jobs associated with the project will be viewed favorably. But after that the community hasn’t been involved.

Diaz’s vote doesn’t mean the proposal can’t happen; the project now moves through the city’s 60-day labyrinthine land-use approval process that includes hearings and votes by the City Planning Commission and the City Council. If other elected officials follow Diaz’s lead, the city could leverage the subsidies to bring Related back to table with the community and still hammer out an agreement.

For nearly a decade the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition advocated for community use of the armory. In 2005 the group joined with the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union to create the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), which called for a project that creates living wage jobs,  promotes retail that doesn’t compete with long-time businesses and builds much-needed community, educational and recreational space for neighborhood youth.

The Borough President’s stance comes not a moment too soon. Unfettered, subsidized development has grown rampant in The Bronx: Gateway Mall (developed by Related) near Yankee Stadium and the Water Filtration Plant have not brought promised jobs, have run far over budget and/or have moved forward in the land use process under the guise of fake Community Benefit Agreements.

Kudos to Diaz for standing up for his constituents and hopefully setting a new standard that won’t allow subsidizing mega developments to come at the expense of locally owned stores and diminished wages, taxes and jobs.


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