Sunday, June 25, 2006

A tale of two cities

Two towns in northern California, less than 42 miles apart, yet a solar system distant in terms of what happened in each last week. Sorry to sound like Rod Serling, but whoever holds the rights to “The Twilight Zone” could have a good case against whomever—or whatever—was responsible for the creepy differences in how the burgs’ City Councils flexed their authority Wednesday. Consider the facts (best recited to yourself in a Vincent Price voice):

In Oakley, Calif., reported the nearby Contra Costa Times, local officials worked on a plan “to attract and retain
new businesses, sales tax revenue and job-producing industries.” Specifically, said the Thursday news story, the City Council is drafting measures to attract “desirable businesses”; among the operations mentioned in the story as welcomed imminent arrivals were a Straw Hat Pizza, the area’s first Starbucks, and a Wendy’s.

"We are getting on national retailers' radar screen," assistant city manager Karen Majors was quoted as saying, with inferred enthusiasm.

At the very time Oakley was borrowing the Bat Sign to flash “Welcome, Businesses!” across the clouds, nearby Oakland, Calif., was working itself into a froth over foam. It’s bad enough that some people were tossing their polystyrene fast-food containers in the streets of Jack London’s hometown. But kids were wolfing down burgers and pork fried rice that could conceivably have picked up chemicals leached from the Styrofoam by the food’s heat. And what about the threat to fish that feed in the Bay? You can see shreds of the takeout boxes floating everywhere.

Civic fathers decided something had to be done to protect residents. So they simultaneously banned polystyrene and mandated that ready-to-eat food sellers exclusively use biodegradable wraps and containers as of January. And this came after the city voted a few months ago to levy a tax on fast-food places, to pay for litter pick-up.

To their credit, the City Council specified that a switch to compostable materials would be required of restaurants only if the changeover would not cost establishments any more money. For that provision, the members should get a free weekend in Oakley.

While there, perhaps they could do some thinking. If you’re a business looking to extend your territory by opening new branches, where would you go? A place that welcomes you as part of a larger effort to increase tax revenues, spur the local economy, and put more people to work? Or one that hits you with a special tax because some of your customers don’t obey the law? And then follow up with, “No-go on that container, good neighbor. Hereabouts, you use a type we’ve decided is better for your customers.”

Which town is going to get your next site?

Then again, that’s assuming Oakland wants chain outlets in the first place, as Oakley has eagerly attested. Plenty of areas have enacted measures to fend off the big national brands, usually by banning businesses that follow a format. Those measures are championed as sure-fire ways of maintaining a locale’s unique character. But, for some strange reason, they tend to be championed by the local businesspeople who would compete with the incoming chains.

But let’s give Oakland the benefit of the doubt and assume its City Council truly wants the best quality of life for residents. If that’s really the case, I think it should also do what’s right for the restaurant operators and employees who live and work there.

Instead of banning polystyrene and mandating biodegradable packaging, why not lead restaurants to do so, by waiving the trash tax for any establishment that voluntarily makes the switch? The foam faulters would be happy, the restaurants would be happy, even the fishes would swim with a jauntier flip to their fins.

The real difference between the two towns is not their attitudes toward businesses, but the willingness of one to rely on incentives, while the other is focused on censure.

Which is the better place for business, from the standpoint of the resident as well as the entrepreneur?

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