COURSEY: Looking for more than just a job

Other than keeping a tight grip on the public purse strings, a local elected official has no job more important than deciding land-use issues.

And no job more difficult — particularly in times of economic uncertainty.

"Jobs," intoned the stickers worn by supporters of an expanded Wal-Mart at Thursday's meeting of the Rohnert Park Planning Commission. And though the commissioners' job was limited to focusing narrowly on technical details of an environmental impact report, the impact of other "jobs" weighed heavily in the debate.

"There are so many people out of work, and Wal-Mart is going to put new jobs" in the community, said Betty Overstreet, who traveled from Santa Rosa to tell Rohnert Park planners how to vote.

It's true; there are so many people out of work — despite another news story this week that Sonoma County is leading the state in job creation.

"Enormous progress has been made here," Jerry Nickelsburg, a senior economist at UCLA, said at the annual State of the County event on Wednesday.

But that doesn't relieve the pressure on local officials to support economic development — almost any kind of economic development. At a time when housing starts are a dim memory, downtown storefronts stand empty and local budgets are stretched paper-thin, members of city councils are increasingly reluctant to let anything stand in the way of new business and new jobs.

Meanwhile, ideas that came into favor during better economic times — such as environmental sustainability and living wages — get lost in desperate search for jobs and tax revenue.

That will be the atmosphere in which the Wal-Mart expansion issue arrives at the Rohnert Park City Council. And, given that the council approved it on a 4-1 vote in 2010, it's likely that Wal-Mart will find a receptive audience this time, as well.

Still, Wal-Mart's promise of 85 new jobs in the Friendly City is an illusion. Because Wal-Mart is a net taker, not a net giver. It represents the American trend that has large businesses consolidating into huge corporations that offshore their expenses to low-paid manufacturing jobs in China and the Third World and suck profits out of local communities to benefit owners and stockholders. Sure, it provides jobs — it has more than 2 million employees — but it leans toward part-time, low-paying jobs with minimal benefits.

And while an expanded Wal-Mart will hire workers in Rohnert Park, it will siphon business from existing grocers and other retailers — potentially reducing jobs available elsewhere. It is well-documented that big-box stores such as Wal-Mart don't increase economic activity and employment in a community, they merely redistribute what's there — usually at the expense of smaller, locally owned competitors.

Local elected officials know this. Many would probably prefer locally based businesses to expand instead of relying on multi-national corporations to drive growth. But mom-and-pop stores don't propose 35,000-square-foot grocery expansions, as Wal-Mart has. The local five-and-dime doesn't produce the kind of foot traffic that can convince Coddingtown to tear down one building and build it another, as Target did last year.

But the logical path these actions set us on will lead to a cookie-cutter community of Wal-Marts and Targets and Dicks Sporting Goods and PetSmarts and Best Buys that provide low prices, low pay and little else to the social fabric. We risk becoming a place that may boast of being "business-friendly" but where it's harder and harder to do business without a corporate leash and supply chain that stretches around the globe.

We shouldn't sell ourselves so short. Local officials need to weigh the long-term impacts of big-box development alongside the short-term gains.

Sustainability should be a priority in any economy; decent wages and benefits should be a requirement for any new job.

Settling for anything less isn't economic growth. In the long run, it's economic loss.

(Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.)