With half of all recent college grads unable to find suitable work, how can cities justify keeping jobs out? Photo: ϟnapshot 19/Flickr.

If you still know anybody who thinks the economy is in “recovery,” just lay this one single statistic on them: one in two recent U.S. college graduates today is unemployed or underemployed, unable to find work in his or her chosen field.

“Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs – waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example – and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans,” writes the AP.

Surely, when the world’s leading system of higher education — serving the youth of Long Island or the San Fernando Valley while also attracting young strivers from Beijing, Mumbai and Mexico City — leaves its accredited graduates with little chance to achieve that cubicle job of their dreams (such dreams!), then our economy has failed in its most fundamental promise.

Now, we all know that this promise was empty in many ways. Working for a big corporation might have made you wealthy, but it was never going to make you healthy or wise.

And after the collapse of 2008, it’s become pretty clear that the whole soul-sucking, career-grubbing game is over anyway. So it may be just as well that we could be looking at a future economy without traditional jobs. But try telling that to a 22-year old who has to start making payments on $29,000 in student loans, the national average.

Meanwhile, middle aged and older people are also coping with the economy’s broken promises to them: lost jobs, lost homes, lost retirement.

Likewise, cash-strapped cities around the country are facing the same issue. If all the corporations are slimming down or just leaving town, then how can city hall continue to bring in enough tax revenues to pay for public services? And with those corporate jobs gone, how will residents earn a living?

Our cities have relied on outside companies for so long that we’ve forgotten any other way to live.

You can keep your damn jobs

So what happens, in this time of economic starvation, when one of those remaining corporate businesses wants to buck the trend, and instead of leaving town, actually wants to come in?

The citizens of Totnes, Transition Town Number One, are now facing just this issue as Costa Coffee, the UK’s largest java chain, has applied to open a store in the historic center of this progressive and upscale town in southwestern England. The local Transition group is leading the charge to keep Costa out, arguing that Totnes already has about thirty places in town serving coffee and tea. An anti-Costa petition has garnered nearly 4,000 signatures so far, an impressive showing for a town of only 7,500.

In May, Totnes Town Council’s planning committee unamimously rejected Costa’s bid “on the grounds of impact on vitality and viability of the retail function of the town center and as it will not reflect the individuality of the town center.”

And with an old-timey respect for downtime that surely hasn’t been seen in any American local government for decades, the Totnes council group excoriated Costa, which wanted to operate from 6:30 am to 8 pm, for wanting to stay open too long.

“The proposed hours of opening are antisocial. They are dissimilar to any other business in the area and will create a very undesirable precedent, and will seriously affect the health and well being of residents in the immediate locality.”

You tell ‘em how it is, Honorable Councillors.

Andrew Simms of the New Economy Foundation summed up the deeper problem with chain stores in an interview on “Costa-gate” with Totnes resident and Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins:

Chain stores, of whatever variety, whether they are selling mobile phones, or whether they are selling coffee, or whether they are selling doughy torpedo-shaped sandwiches, are a way of doing business that carries with them a particular DNA for the society and the local economy which grows up around them…They are interested in one thing, and that is sucking in consumer spending to be extracted from the local economy, shuffled off to head office to pay for centralized logistics, and the expectations of remote, disinterested investors in the City [of London]. It is an extractive industry.

Business friendly

Speaking of local government, I was just elected to city council here in Staunton, Virginia, a town about three times bigger than Totnes. I’ll be sworn in on July 2.

My six future fellow councilmen and councilwomen are thoughtful and generally progressive. But I can’t imagine any of them arguing to keep out a corporate chain business because their hours are too long. That’s just not the American way.

The rub is, I believe that our whole city council agrees with me that local businesses are preferable to chains. And there’s plenty of support among downtown merchants and residents across the city for Buying Local.

But there are also lots of residents who think nothing of patronizing chains on a regular basis and who want the city to recruit more corporate businesses, not keep them out.

When it comes to chain stores, cities like mine find much to love:

  • Residents “want better shopping” and resent having to drive to other cities to get their favorite brands. In a small town or small city, it’s a sign of civic pride to say “We now have our own [insert famous brand here].”
  • With local budgets for schools, fire, police and other services cut every year, local government needs the tax revenue from local shops and chains alike. They just want tax money and aren’t too picky about the source, as long as it’s legal. After all, if the city brings in less tax revenue from businesses, then they’ll have to make it up by taxing homeowners more just to keep the potholes filled. So city hall wants to maximize the number of businesses in the city, rather than keeping some businesses out.
  • Many citizens view chains as not just inevitable but also preferable to mom-and-pop shops, which can have higher prices, inconsistent hours, quirky customer service and uneven quality. A common perception is that chains offer better value and more reliable service. If the staff are grumpy, at a chain they’ll keep it to themselves.

We need help now, not next year

The deeper arguments against chain stores are very compelling if you’re a long-term systems thinker like the folks at the American Independent Business Alliance who support local business fighting chains across the U.S.

But how do you convince everybody in town who’s just looking at the immediate impact and saying “Boy, the economy sure is tough right now. We need more jobs and and more tax revenues in this town. Thank goodness such a well known brand has chosen our city. What idiot would want to scare them away?”

What idiot indeed.

Especially when you consider that, if the city rejected a chain store, the same store would most likely just relocate right outside the city limits. So they’d still compete with downtown businesses, but now the taxes would go to another jurisdiction. For the city, that would be a lose-lose.

How do you tell that 22-year-old college grad with nearly $30,000 in student loan debt and no hope of a cubicle job that city council wants to keep a new Starbucks from opening up in town?

If the future is all about local food and food processing, local small manufactures and even local media and local entertainment, that future can sometimes seem far off today. We need to build a bridge from today’s damaged economy, with all its broken promises, to the healthier local economy of tomorrow. At the same time, we need to take care of those who are suffering right now.

It won’t be easy though.

For my part, I prefer a local coffee shop for the good vibe. And I know that a local business circulates dollars in the area’s economy many times more than a chain store.

But that 22-year old is probably more interested in the higher pay and health insurance she can get at Starbucks.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice