Visions of Development Along the Border

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Yesterday, I had to swing into Staples just over the border in Fall River, Massachusetts, and it was the first time I’d seen the under-construction mall more closely than from the highway.  The contrast with the depressing wasteland that mall had been just a short while ago — which made one feel badly for the employees still working at the K-mart there — was dramatic.  New pavement… new landscaping… shining storefronts.

As Steve Nielsen and Sarah Doiron report for WPRI:

Ken Fiola with the Office of Economic Development says it all began when Market Basket agreed to a plot.

“This was a dead mall. A dead, blighted place you didn’t want to be. They came in here and knocked it down,” he said. “You need to have that anchor tenant…. Market Basket proved to be that anchor tenant and then you build off that.”

Construction crews are trying to keep up with the demand, eventually having new businesses in the marketplace create 1,000 new jobs.

The aesthetics aren’t the only notable change, though.  A buzz is beginning.  An empty building across the street from the mall that used to be a Shaw’s market isn’t attracting speculation about when it will leveled, but what great store might move in.

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Living just over the border in Tiverton, Rhode Island, I can’t help but contrast our experience.  In Tiverton, every proposed development larger than a single building has been declared to be “a mall,” and residents don’t want to change the character of the town in that way.  Fine.  But one can trace the trend of this attitude and see the result:  A decade-and-a-half ago, in the service of a few acres of trees, the Town Council pulled some zoning tricks to block a small, tasteful shopping center right on Route 24, including some public spaces, like a library.  So, the next development came as a bigger proposal and with more influence, requiring more effort to block.  Then a bigger proposal across the highway fell apart, too.

Ultimately, we ended up with a government-run casino closer to the border, which won its votes largely because the state is starving for blood from Massachusetts gamblers and town residents need tax relief.  Right up the street from the rehabbed Massachusetts mall, that’s Rhode Island’s contribution to economic development — a government attempt to capitalize on a vice in an artificially restricted market, as if the state is moving in on the territory of organized crime.

One can’t help but trace this thread farther.  Locals actually want any ancillary economic activity from the casino to flow back out to Massachusetts rather than away from the highway onto the local roads of Tiverton.  Personally, I don’t disagree, inasmuch as I like the character of the town and harbor skepticism that there really will be much ancillary economic development anyway.

But then, a little bit farther up the road, we’ve got a brand new public-debt-funded library and skate park with significant numbers of patrons from Massachusetts.  The skate park is entirely free to users, parking and usage alike, and the library board refuses to seek any revenue from the services that it provides, even for limited programs from which residents find themselves and their children blocked because the seats are filled with people who aren’t paying the bills.

Again, move beyond the aesthetics, and even the budgets, to the buzz.  In Fall River, we see large-scale, private-sector development that feels (for the time, at least) like an opportunity for rejuvenation.  Across the border in Tiverton, we see smaller-scale, government-funded “development” whose most notable near-term effect is to sow division, because anything new comes with the vulnerable sense that any majority of people voting at a particular time can force others to pay for things they may never use and rarely ever even see… unless they happen to pass it by on their way to shop in a different state.

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