Wal-Mart: The New ‘Mecca’ of Fall River

An Epitaph for Fall River

“…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” – Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

            Over 100 years ago, the skyline of Fall River was riddled with majestic smokestacks from textile mills that employed thousands of people of all backgrounds that made the city the top producer of textiles in the world.  The mills were powerful entities, or meccas, that symbolized a city.  Fall River’s candle burned brightly back then, a paradise in industrial terms.  However, in the decades that followed, the candle began to dim as the mills slowly started to disappear from the skyline by either great conflagrations or for greener pastures down south.   In their place today another powerful entity is to be built that will again symbolize a city: a Super Wal-Mart.

The recent news of a new Super Wal-Mart to be constructed on the former site of the Quaker Fabric mill on Brayton Avenue has spurred debate on whether this is good for the city or not.  Many see the sorely needed new 100 jobs Wal-Mart will provide as good for Fall River, and they would be right given the city’s high unemployment rate, but to those thinking that the new Wal-Mart is a sound idea for the city in the long term, think again.

Conventional wisdom says that Wal-Mart destroys small local businesses that can’t compete with it, but economic professor Russell Sobel of West Virginia University says it’s a myth that is not necessarily true in a US News and Report article from August of 2008.  It should be noted that his studies were on small businesses whose items were not direct competition with those of Wal-Mart, such as restaurants and art galleries.  Not included in the data of the study were those businesses that were closed down that went head to head with Wal-Mart such as K-Mart.  Fall River has many small businesses that sell similar items like Wal-Mart, and in the city’s fragile economic market and climate, it’s not good news for the locals.

You also need to consider the nature of the jobs Wal-Mart offers.  When you had worked in a mill, you actually made something.   Fall River mills produced, while at Wal-Mart you will only serve.  The textile industry has long been dead and is not coming back, so we need to invest in businesses and industry where we can produce and earn a livable wage.  Fall River needs to see the bigger picture when it comes to sustainable jobs for a sustainable future, not knee jerk, short-term solutions and fixes.

The Wal-Mart endeavor will also cause a problem for the Harbor Mall and its future.  When the Super Wal-Mart opens at the end of 2012, the current one at the Harbor Mall will close and move to the new location.  What happens then?  Wal-Mart has provided life-support for the mall since it opened, and it (the mall) cannot sustain itself with the current businesses there.  This opens up a slew of questions that need to be addressed:  “Will the mall be razed?”, “What will be put in its place?” and “What will happen to the displaced employees?”

A different question that begs to be asked is why the Karam’s and FROED settled for a Super Wal-Mart when they could have put anything on that land?    Why not a new business or industry where you can earn a good pay and re-establish a thriving economy in Fall River?  The “Crossroads at 24” as the site is called, will easily be spotted for all the passing motorists driving to the Cape, Boston, Newport or Providence to see, where a new Super Wal-Mart could be interpreted as Fall River’s white flag.  It’s as if the city has settled for mediocrity from top to bottom, and as long as we settle for less this city will not survive.

In the late 1800’s, the ruling oligarchy comprised of  the Borden’s, Durfee’s and Buffington’s built up and put Fall River on the map by creating and producing jobs of industry.  Now, the current Establishment has been given a chance to rebuild the city into something special again, and their answer is a Super Wal-Mart.  I wonder what the Borden’s or Durfee’s would have thought about something like a Wal-Mart on the site of one the building blocks that had made Fall River great.

Fall River, which has prided itself on its rich history and hard work, has in fact lost its way.  The actions of our current leadership recall the adage, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, just that I didn’t know that the intentions were in the form of a conglomerate empire.

With our leaders apparently not serving in the best interest of the city and a fair portion of its own people settling for less, I’m beginning to think maybe Fall River’s candle doesn’t deserve to be rekindled and should stay snuffed out permanently, but I know better than that as I search for a match.

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Fall River: A Field of Broken Dreams?

The middle of summer brings warm weather, barbeques and the chasing down of the Del’s Lemonade truck, but it’s also that time of year where we start looking over prospects, analyzing their talent, statistics and contributions, and make decisions on who to draft in hopes in creating a winning team for next season.  No, I am not talking about your fantasy football team but of the 2011 Fall River city elections, and this year’s turn is a critical one for the city.  It’s an election that cannot afford apathy, nor a blind eye by its citizens.

Fall River in its current state is similar to that of a losing team needing that first pick in the draft in order to get someone to lead and bring jobs to the city.  Far too long has the city fielded a unit that has kept us in last place with overpaid, underachieving players playing in a crumbling stadium, thus causing a dwindling fan base and loss of revenue.  This indicates a serious charge of mismanagement, a charge that calls for a reevaluation of the team and moves.  So to avoid the usual bitter disappointment that follows after first getting our hopes up thinking “this is the year”, we need to take a hard look at some of the key players.

In the draft of 2009, the top pick was Will Flanagan, a pure “dark horse” candidate that came out of nowhere.  As a rookie, he has made some good decisions from the start such as with throwing out the lame Peabody bid on the Durfee Tech Building, but he also has made some errors in the field as well…

Flanagan barely recovered from the ill-advised push for a casino, which nearly discarded an already state funded bio park, but others continue to haunt him such as the controversial rainwater tax still in effect (which was part of his platform in getting elected), the Lazy Cakes miscue and his handling of the city school budget.  His recent dealing with AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union) on threatening layoffs of government employees, and then pulling a supposedly “eleventh hour miracle” to save jobs is not in good practice for getting re-elected.  Should he be sent back to the minors for redevelopment?  Could it be that Flanagan’s ambitions seriously outweigh his talent?

Then there is the issue of the bloated payroll for players that have produced little to nothing for Fall River, while the fans suffer at the gate.  One such player that should have retired a long time ago is Ken Fiola of FROED (Fall River Office of Economic Development).  Though not an “elected” pick, he has shown nothing on the field that warrants his whopping yearly salary.  Since he has been in the lineup, the situation with Fall River has deteriorated to the point where the fans are tearing up their season tickets and leaving for other teams.  Fall River consistently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and small businesses continue to fold or relocate elsewhere e.g., The Ugly American.  You’d think we would get something more for our money.  On any other team he would have been gone years ago.

A Field of Broken Dreams?

But the epic failure of the last few drafts has to be the continued re-election of city council members that should have been traded away long ago.  It is still baffling why Leo Pelletier is called back on to the field time and time again.  It’s as if the city is stuck in a vicious cycle that’s afraid of breaking out of in fear of not knowing any other way.  This does not have to continue and it’s high time we shake things up a bit.

Instead of bickering like outraged fans, we need to start acting more like scouts and general managers in picking good players to field a team in Fall River that will succeed.  We need to resist that urge of picking a player out of familiarity (“I recognize that name” followed by a checkmark on the ballot) and start evaluating the talent and choose them based on ideas, vision and a strong resume of action.  The importance of drafting top quality picks to positions that in turn pick other players in key roles, i.e. school superintendent, is crucial in turning the city around and should not be overlooked or taken for granted.

That being said, this year’s crop of new prospects for mayor and city council could help inject Fall River with renewed energy and ideas that are so desperately needed if given the opportunity.  With the right players in place, Fall River can field a team to bring the city out of the bottom of the standings and be a front runner in the region.  This in turn will lure the fans back and its fan base will continue to grow, and also help bring in new vendors and generate the revenue needed to help rebuild our dilapidated stadium known as Fall River.  If you build it, they will come.

Take a good look at our team, the mayor, city council, school committee and those of appointed positions, and ask yourself if it’s a successful team.  If you believe it’s not, then it’s up to you to make the choices that will help us win.  We deserve better.