Corporate siege of the Outer Cape intensifies

The front page of this newspaper recently featured two Outer Cape stories: an update on the Herring River restoration in Wellfleet and Truro, and Dollar General’s determination, despite a lot of local opposition, to put one of its 13,000 big box stores in Eastham.

The Cape Cod Commission has decided to weigh in on the Dollar General issue as a development of regional impact. As well it might.

The Herring River restoration, by removal of a 1909 dike, will have a large (and widely, although not unanimously, approved) impact on the region, as tides reach higher in the estuary over coming years. But surely not as big as the tide of corporate, formula business threatening our region.

One of the things that characterizes all of Cape Cod, and this Outer Cape sub-region especially, is resistance to becoming like every place else. Most residents and summer visitors count on our being something of an anachronism. Many towns in other parts of the country have long been Stepfordized, their downtowns eviscerated of local, traditional business and replaced by a lineup of mega-corporate, nonlocal clones (or “formula businesses,” the term we’ve settled on). For a long time many in this town thought we were too small a market for most mega chains to bother with. But suddenly it seems we are on their radar.

Cumberland Farms is winning the battle of Wellfleet, looking to complete a sweep of the Outer Cape with larger, fancified stores and gas stations. CVS is in court attempting to shoehorn its way into Provincetown. Now Dollar General’s designs on Eastham.

Wellfleet’s formula business bylaw ran afoul of the strange idea that you can’t ban a business on the basis of ownership. According to a 19th century legal precedent, a town’s attempt to be discriminating about allowing multi-billion dollar national or international stores to locate here has the same legal standing as discrimination in the other sense against minorities.

We’ll see if Ptown’s similar bylaw fares any better against CVS.

Attempts to discourage unwanted formula businesses by requiring a certain amount of conformation to a rural look, don’t address the real issue. As only a formula business bylaw makes clear, it is not just the look that’s the issue– it’s the formulaic, cookie cutter, nonlocal reality that threaten our quality of life, local business, and our tourist-based economy. (A McDonalds with weathered shingled arches is still McDonalds.)

In Provincetown. a big fear is that CVS, will hurt the regionally vital Outer Cape Health Services, which depends financially on its own pharmacy.

If formula business bylaws specifically crafted to combat the corporate siege don’t work, towns need to come up with other creative strategies. A feisty “Provincetown Banner” editorial recently noted that in 2012 on Nantucket 4500 citizens signed a petition declaring “we will not shop at a CVS on Nantucket.” As a result, according to the paper, “the corporation pulled its plans to open a store there.”

A petition with around 1200 signatures has been presented to CVS executives expressing the opinion that CVS doesn’t belong in Provincetown.

Wellfleet is showing less fight. Our planning board, whose name suggests that they might take the lead in protecting the town against corporate bullying, seems in disarray. The board invited a lawyer to come to a meeting to help them in such planning, but quotes from the board’s vice chairman in a “Banner” article about the meeting made her sound sort of unconcerned about formula businesses and unlikely to be a leader in finding ways to keep them out.

Numerous citizens have invested a great deal of energy over many years in the push for the restoration of the Herring River. One could wish that our town were putting a fraction of the energy into fighting the good fight against the corporate siege. As developments of regional impact, formula businesses will surely have the bigger impact on our future.

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