Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In Praise of Thrift

Apparently, The Draper City Council wants to keep a thrift store from opening in their commercial core (SL Tribune -- broken link). The fear is that a large Deseret Industries store would sully the town's elitist image as an upper middle class haven.

IMHO, this type of aggressive zoning and regulations on who and what is allowed in our towns is exactly the problem that threatens the long term viability of our communities. I disagree 100% with the Draper City Council. Property owners in a commercial district should be able to put up whatever store they think will best serve their public without this micromanagement and judgment of politicos.

I happen to like thrift stores. I've spent a fair amount of time watching the evolution of communities in the internet age. One of the really interesting trends in the last several years is a growing interest in used items. There are two things that feed this. The dominance of box stores has made a tough climate for the small mom and pop type of shop that used to line main street. The second big factor is online auctions. A large number of Utahns supplement their income with eBay stores. This market where we can buy, sell and trade used goods totally transforms the perpective of a buyer.

People who get hooked on eBay are no longer just interested in buying cheap goods that they will toss out. eBayers turn from pure consumers to buyers and sellers. This new type of consumer has the potential to transform the marketplace because buying used is now chic.

While the Draper City Council might be trapped in an elitist vision that thrift stores are only for poor inner cities, I personally, I see thrift stores has having a very positive effect on the community. It is something that belongs in all communities.

This statement might seem bizarre to zoners, but I think that thrift stores actually end up contributing more to the local community than most other types of store. This idea would seem bizarre to planning commissions because the planning commissions look only at the tax revenues.

If you look at a community as a whole system, you get a different picture. What thrift and antique stores do is they take used items from within a community and resell those items to the community. Thrift stores are a closed system. All of the money spent at the thrift store stays in the community.

The big box stores that planning commissions tend to favor have the opposite effect. The typical big box store is owned out of state. They get their product from China. While the big box store might generate more tax revenues, the end effect of big box stores is they take price of the goods and the profits from the sales out of the community.

Thrift and antique stores end up doing one other really bizarre thing. When people see themselves solely as consumers, they end up with a trailer park mantality where they buy cheap stuff destined for the landfill. When people see buying and selling as a cycle, they end up buying higher quality of goods that have resell value. If you develop a system like the antique row in Denver, you end up creating a economic landscape where people actually have equity in the things they own ... which makes for a more stable and wealthier society.

While big box retailers become more and more distant from our community, I suspect that this trend my spawn another trend of more community owned thrift stores and antique shops.

Of course, the biggest enemy of this trend is the zoning commissions that lust after tax dollars. The political drones that haunt the halls of power tend to create tax and zoning policies that put thrift stores and used good stores at a distinct disadvantage.

The idiots on the zoning council probably do not see this. They would look solely at the tax revenues.

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