Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Mike Hurley, the Belfast Retail Review Commission, and Economic Planning

In 2001, a referendum on big-box stores in Belfast, Maine led the City Council to enact legislation forbidding the advent of any retail store over the size of 75,000 square feet. This replaced a moratorium on any development over 50,000 square feet that had been hastily enacted after a proposal by Wal-Mart to build a 160,000 square foot "supercenter" on the back forty. Mayor Mike Hurley was central to those results, through an organization called Belfast First.

"It's a vindication of the referendum and moratorium," Mayor Michael Hurley told the Maine Times. The moratorium enabled the community to engage in "an incredibly valuable debate across kitchen tables, in coffee shops, on the street corner, in barbershops, in the co-op. People learned a lot about our economy and about the predatory practices" of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

In 2004, a referendum initiated by citizen petition passed, establishing a zone for big-box stores up to 200,000 square feet in size on a few parcels on Belfast's east side. This was a vote that was mired in controversy about spot-zoning and conflict of interest. Also, questions about whether zoning could actually be changed thru referendum without going through the normal process of consideration led to litigation (of which Belfast First was a plaintiff), and eventually another referendum in 2005 changed the city charter to forbid zoning changes via referendum.

The one major thing that happened in Belfast between the 2000 and 2004 votes was the closure of Ames Department Store, due to bankruptcy.

Now Mayor Mike Hurley, who was so eager to use the power of government to impose his view of correct shopping practices on the rest of us in 2000 and 2004, seems to have had a change of heart. He is reportedly going to resign from the Belfast Retail Review Commission tonight:

Hurley has accused members of the commission of trying to "run out the clock"” by not reporting back to the city council concerning the issue of retail development in Belfast. In addition, he stated that the commission consists almost entirely now of members who are opposed to large-scale "big box" development.

Well Mike, you appointed them, so you should know.

Regardless of that, as a libertarian who doesn't believe that the size of retail establishments should in any way come under the regulation of government bodies, it's encouraging to see that someone who was once wholly in favor of "economic planning," i.e. keeping certain kinds of economic activity from occurring, is now starting to see that it doesn't work. The lessons learned from authoritarian economic systems around the world, especially those that rose and fell during the twentieth century, are starting to find a wider audience.

I believe that Mike Hurley was sincerely doing what he thought was best in 2000 and 2004, and I believe that he is doing what he thinks is best now. I can't find the quote right now, but I did read a quip reportedly from his mouth in the last few weeks in which he expressed his surprize that retailers hadn't come to Belfast with smaller floor plans in the years since the size cap was enacted.

Mayor Hurley, your next lesson will be about why employers hire fewer people when the minimum wage rises.



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