My apologies, I was going to work on my next post about a sense of place in Howard County, but got distracted by something I read in Alan Klein’s announcement of his candidacy for county council (as reported by HoCo Rising):
I also join the residents of this district in ... requiring that certain services, such as a basic grocery store be considered required elements in a Columbia village center. ... I support the Wilde Lake community in its quest for that basic grocery store. This is not merely a matter of economics or business negotiations. It is a matter of social justice. The people of Wilde Lake who live near their village center and who can’t afford or are not able to drive need access to the basics of life – food for their table, milk for their kids, diapers, etc.
I’m just a naive outsider from Ellicott City, but this is something I’ve never understood. I go to Wilde Lake Village Center all the time, and it doesn’t exactly strike me as a food desert. In particular, I regularly go to shop at David’s Natural Market, which certainly has food for the table, has milk for the kids, and may even have diapers for all I know (I’ve never checked).
So why exactly doesn’t David’s qualify as a grocery store according to Klein and others? Is it because it isn’t a real grocery store (doesn’t have national brands, has a limited selection)? Because it’s not the right kind of grocery store (patronized primarily by outsiders, too crunchy for the people of Wilde Lake)? Because it’s not a basic grocery store (which I presume is a code word for cheap)? I don’t mean to be snarky here, I’m genuinely interested in what’s going on here (beyond just nostalgia for the Giant that was and is no more).
I’m not an expert on the economics of retail development, but I presume that if the economics were favorable for a traditional supermarket at Wilde Lake then the Giant would still be there. Klein seems to assume that the county council has some God-like power to change those economics. (And the council said, Let there be a grocery in Wilde Lake: and there was a grocery.)
If the major issue is cost, and if this really is a matter of social justice as Klein notes, then why not just identify those residents of Wilde Lake who live near their village center and who can’t afford or are not able to drive and provide them direct cash subsidies to shop at David’s? Let’s run the numbers on this:
Per the Wilde Lake community association there are about six to seven thousand people living in Wilde Lake. (The figure of 6,244 is given for the 2000 census.) Let’s assume that about a thousand of them (about 15%) fall into the category that Klein is concerned about.
Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2008 the average consumer unit consisted of 2.5 people and spent $3,744 on food consumed at home (as opposed to eating out), or about $1,500 per person.
Let’s assume that prices at David’s Natural Market are 20% higher than those at a traditional supermarket like Giant, etc. This would translate into an extra $300 in food costs per person per year (20% of $1,500).
So, for $300,000 a year (a thousand people times $300/year) Howard County could enable Wilde Lake residents to shop at David’s who otherwise couldn’t afford either to shop there or to drive elsewhere. Now my number may be a bit off — maybe there are more people in Wilde Lake who need to be subsidized, and maybe David’s price premium is more than I think it is. But it still seems to me that any affordability issue could be addressed by a county expenditure well less than $1M per year, and if this is really an issue of social justice then there would be some justification for the expense.
Also, it’s not as if this sort of thing is unprecedented in Howard County. As reported in the Baltimore Sun, the Howard County council recently approved 2010 funding of $500,000 for Healthy Howard, a program that is currently serving 621 people and could serve up to 750, for a cost of about $670 per person per year. This is over twice what I’ve proposed above to address the Wilde Lake grocery problem.
Now, I’ll fess up: I’m writing here partly with tongue in cheek. (What, you’re going to tax us more so that people in Wilde Lake can buy tofurkey at David’s! The very idea!) But I’m also trying to make a serious point: If the county can’t simply wave a magic wand and make a grocery appear in Wilde Lake (as I and others believe), and if there’s really a serious question of social justice here (as Alan Klein claims), then Klein and other who agree with him owe it to the taxpayers of Howard County to actually put a price tag on solving the problem that they claim exists, and make the case to the voters that paying that price is worth it in order to make Columbia and Howard County the sort of place we all want it to be.