Thursday, February 4, 2010

Do We Need a Kohl's?

Set your alarm clocks. Bright and early at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning the Columbia County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) will be meeting in the Board of Supervisors chamber at 401 State Street to receive--if all predictions are correct--Widewaters' application for a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) to bring a Kohl's department store to Greenport Commons. Although it's not a public hearing, and there is no guarantee that members of the public will be permitted to speak, it may be a meeting worth getting up early to attend.

On January 11, Widewaters' Marco Marzocchi presented the idea to the Board of Supervisors Planning and Economic Development Committee. The details of that meeting were reported on ccSCOOP, but basically, the deal is that, for the next twenty years, Kohl's wants to pay property tax only on the undeveloped land its building will sit on but not on the building itself. In the first year, that amounts to a tax abatement of $61,600. For this "investment" from the community, the community gets--in addition to "unique shopping experiences" and "community caring"--sales tax (predicted by Kohl's to be $101,920 in the first year) and jobs (125--only 30 percent of which would be full time). Although this doesn't seem like a particularly good deal (if you subtract what is forfeited in property tax from what is promised in sales tax, the annual gain is only $40,320, and 30 percent of 125 is only 37 full-time jobs), two days later the full Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution in support of the IDA giving Kohl's a PILOT. You can read about that in the Register-Star.

Some members of the Board of Supervisors seem hopeful that the IDA can negotiate a deal with Kohl's other than the one outlined by Marzocchi, but Marzocchi insisted that the deal was the deal--take it or forgo the singular honor of being one of only thirty communities in the US to get a new Kohl's store in 2010. And giving up Kohl's also means giving up the chance for a T.J. Maxx, because T.J. Maxx, which will ask for the same deal, won't even consider locating in Greenport if there is to be no Kohl's. Visions of 9W in Kingston dance in the head.

In discussion of Kohl's, there is much talk of making Columbia County a "retail shopping destination" and of "revitalizing the retail corridor" that is Route 9 in Greenport. These goals raise some questions, one of which was asked by Lori Selden at the P&ED Committee meeting: "If you want to create a retail shopping destination, why not try to attract a store that isn't everywhere else?" There is, after all, a Kohl's in the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston and another in Colonie Center in Albany and 1,057 more in every state but Hawaii. In response to Selden's question, Marzocchi said he didn't know of such a store, which isn't surprising. Stores that provide genuinely "unique shopping experiences" are usually the creation of one person with exceptional taste and an unfailing eye--like Timothy Dunleavy and Rural Residence, Melinda Slover and Lili and Loo, Dan Turk and Shop Naked, Knotty Woodpecker, and Count Turkofsky's Department Store.

Another question that needs to be asked is: "Why do the decision makers in Columbia County seem hellbent to imitate what is found everywhere in America and to turn our unique county--where there are working family farms, open spaces, glorious vistas, historic buildings, and one cool little city--into "the geography of nowhere"? (Thank you, James Kunstler, for coining that phrase more than a decade ago.)

Puzzling too is the apparent inability of some residents of Greenport to grasp the finer points of cause and effect. At the Greenport Town Board meeting last night, people living along Joslen Boulevard complained bitterly, as they seem to at most town meetings, about the increased traffic on their road now that the traffic light has been installed at its northern terminus--at the entrance to the Widewaters mall. They demanded from the Town Board that the plan to widen Route 9--from the border with Hudson to the border with Stockport--be revived and implemented. (From what I could gather, widening that stretch of Route 9 didn't happen ten years ago because people couldn't agree on whether or not to have a median and whether or not to plant trees.) Strangely, however, no one demanded from Greenport Planning Board Chair Don Alger and the two other members of the Planning Board who were in the audience an explanation of why, in their site plan review, they had settled for the limited and inadequate traffic study offered by Widewaters instead of requiring the developers to do a thorough traffic study that looked at the impacts beyond a single intersection--on the rest of that part of Greenport, on Hudson, and on communities farther north on Route 9. (Perhaps they were just being polite, but good manners didn't stop one Greenporter from questioning Highway Superintendent Mark Gaylord about the need to spend "that kind of money" on security cameras for the town garage and insinuating some kind of misconduct when he said, more than once, "Something's going in the Town Highway Department.")

Two other things related to the Kohl's issue happened at the Greenport Town Board meeting. Building Inspector John Florio reported that he had already had a "preliminary meeting" with representatives of Kohl's and Widewaters--a meeting that was initiated by Kohl's. Also, toward the end of the meeting, Councilman Tom Fleming asked if it had not always been the position of the Town Board to oppose PILOTs and if it was not now the position of the Town Board to oppose a PILOT for Kohl's. The other members of the board, including Supervisor Ed Nabozny, affirmed that both statements were true. Nabozny, who with all the other county supervisors voted in support of the county IDA giving Kohl's a PILOT, has said on more than one occasion that he thinks the IDA can negotiate with Kohl's. He was quoted in the Register-Star as saying, "I’m hoping we’ll come to a great conclusion, and Kohl’s will be here.”


  1. I wonder if anyone has ever challenged the constitutionality of giving preferential tax breaks to some but not all? Seems to me there is a profound underlying issue here...

  2. Looks like Greenport has sold their soul to Kohl's. The PILOT sounds like a not-good-deal, and why some board members think they can negotiate a better one after the fact sounds...naive. But this is Greenport: eyebrows for $10, remember? Sigh.

    Let's face it: a Kohl's in Columbia County would bring shoppers here instead of Kingston or Albany, which would be good for our economy. And keeping local shoppers home would be good for the environment (less gas used on the drive). Then again: all that Kohl's merchandise is probably made in China and shipped to California, then trucked to the Northeast... a vicious cycle that never ends. As for jobs, even 37 full-time positions sounds good in this economy. Those jobs would change the lives of 37 people.

    Is there such a thing as a unique department store that would be of benefit to our area, yet affordable for most people? While Warren street shops are of impeccable taste, their prices keep many away. That said, I am grateful Hudson is more "careful" than Greenport, and that the only national chain store within walking distance of my home is a pharmacy, as I refuse to shop at the Rx Bermuda Triangle on Fairview.

    What I'm hoping for is balance. The PILOT probably isn't it, but only if our local economy is balanced will we all truly thrive.