Economic colonization and the loss of the local
July 13, 1979
A bit of a moan about the colonization of Springfield by national firms. Much of my argument, I see now, is nonsense. The fact is, the arrival of branch stores and franchise outfits in the retail and restaurant sectors improved the quality of goods on offer in the city, if not always the service. However, as is noted in the two concluding paragraphs, the loss of local ownership means the loss of local owners to the civil community, and that did Springfield no good at all.
Of course, the pace of the changes I lament here only accelerated in the decades since I wrote this.
I was sorting through a pile of old newspaper clippings, press releases, and reports when a quote caught my eye. The subject was farming, or more specifically the control of American farmland by foreigners. “Arabs," an anonymous Illinois farmer was quoted as saying in opposition to the idea, “don’t sit on local school boards.”
What he meant is that property ownership entails certain obligations to one’s community, and that some vital thread is broken when the people who live in a place are not the people who own it. This concern on the part of their country cousins strikes many city dwellers as fevered and out of proportion because, figuratively speaking, they haven’t owned the land they farm for a long time.
In an accelerating trend, major retailers, banks, and factories in smaller cities—in short, the means of livelihood—are being bought up by bigger ones. The economies of cities are being centralized and consolidated as acquisitive firms forage in the hinterland for chances to break into profitable markets or expand to achieve a more economical scale of operation.
Springfield provides a convenient example, if not a unique one. Fifteen years ago the strings of virtually all of the city's non-manufacturing economy were pulled by local hands—two of the three biggest department stores, for example, its two giant homegrown insurance firms, its three biggest hostelries, its three banks. By 1979 only the banks remained under local control. Myers Brothers and Bressmers had been sold (the former to Phillips-Van Heusen in 1968, then the Bergners chain in 1978, the latter to Stix, Baer & Fuller, the pride of St. Louis, in 1977), as were Franklin Life Insurance Co., (American Brands) and Horace Mann Educators (Insurance of North America).
These transfers don't fully describe the shift in ownership in Springfield’s economy in the last decade and a half, however, nor do they reveal the increasing domination by out-of-town economic interests. The vast bulk of the expansion in retailing has been accounted by the entrance into the Springfield market (or re-entrance in the cases of Montgomery Ward and Penneys) of national chain outfits. In the industrial sector, major local firms such as Bunn-O-Matic have closed shop or moved: when they have been replaced it has been by interlopers like Novenco. The most wrenching of these departures was that of Sangamo-Weston, nee Sangamo Electric. Sangamo was the last of Springfield's indigenous industries, and it was acquired in 1975 by the Belgium-based conglomerate Schlumbarger Ltd. which orphaned it three years later in favor of branch plants in other states.
The downtown hotels have closed, and their place has been taken by chains. The daily newspapers (now, newspaper) have taken their orders from the Copley Press in San Diego since 1942, but that pattern has been copied by other bastions of the local communications media. The cable TV system is run out of Texas and Sangamon Broadcasting, a local company, sold its two radio stations to a chain recently, and in April Plains Television announced that it had sold WICS-TV to a Washington, D.C. entrepreneur.
So what? The effects of centralization on the national economy are generally thought to be unhappy, chiefly because it retards competition. But what effect does outside ownership of the economy have in Springfield? The new owner of WICS-TV, for example, pledged to keep the same management, and a colleague of mine has noted that the only change he's noticed in Channel 20 since the takeover is a new weatherman.
It’s true that the effects of outside ownership are often subtle and hard to spot, especially to someone with only a short acquaintance with the city. It would take a longtime Springfieldian, I suspect, to appreciate the import of the little conversation a friend of mine overheard some months ago while shopping in the basement of Bressmers downtown. Bressmers had been run under the new management for months, and there had been changes made that had not sat well with either the staff or some of its old customers. Two clerks—both eccentric pros of the old school who knew their customers and their merchandise—summed up the meaning of those changes. “They might as well change the name,” said one. “It hasn’t been Bressmers for a long time.”
Those of us who mourn the passing of that sense of identity and tradition (Bressmers had been Bressmers for 108 years) could be dismissed as hollow-headed nostalgists. But tradition isn’t all that’s lost. Businesses, particularly retailers in intimate contact with their public, adapted themselves to the idiosyncrasies of their market in much the same way that married people adapt to each other’s quirks. Their conglomerated successors, however, typically offer computer-generated inventories that do not vary by so much as a button from Springfield to Atlanta. Or, as at least one White Oaks clothing chain is known to do, they dump merchandise in their Springfield stores that can't be sold in their main stores. One often hears that the entry of larger national outfits increases a consumer's choice of goods. It does, but they are someone else’s choices. The end result of the domination of local retailing by national firms is a homogenization of taste, a sense of style as standardized as the stores that peddle it.
A local retailer can fight back, of course, and there are a couple in Springfield who have kept pace, step for step, with the big boys. But the odds are against him. (Or her: one of the most successful of the surviving local men’s clothiers is run by a woman.) Because of their size, the big outsiders tend to dominate small markets even when they don’t actually control them. They have slicker advertising, capital for expansion into profitable markets, centralized buying apparatus, and better trained managers. (Better managers, period, in many cases; a chain can afford a bright young person more opportunities than a local store.) Partly as a result, local retailers who haven't been bought out by their bigger competitors are being run out by them.
In February, the New York Times reported the story of Portland, Oregon. Like Springfield, Portlandians had watched their town bought up by out-of-town interests. The most recent step was the acquisition by the Pabst Brewing Co. of the local brewerv that had slaked local thirsts for 123 years. There were the usual reasons—Pabst could buy beer cans for twenty-six cents a case cheaper than the local firms, it has better distribution and advertising set-ups, and so on.
In a brief editorial note about the story titled "Invasions," the Times cited the usual objections to centralized ownership. But the paper also noted that "something more than local ownership is being lost." It quoted a Portland Chamber of Commerce spokesman who said. "The biggest difference . . . is in the response to community need. Then, some warhorse would call a meeting of the people who decided things and it would get done. Now. they all have to contact corporate headquarters, at somewhere like Gravelswitch, Kansas, and it takes forever to get an answer."
I know that companies try to be what they unfailingly call “good citizens" in the towns they move into, and some of the more enlightened ones encourage, even require, that managers involve themselves in the community. But there is a crucial difference of emphasis. Where the local businessman often lends his name (and that of his firm) to a project in order to legitimize it—in effect to enhance the project's reputation—the middle-level manager with one eye cocked permanently toward the home office does it in order that the project will enhance his firm's reputation.
Put another way, the former does it for public service, the latter for public relations. The foreign manager will take no official stand not approved by the home office, and so his presence in the community often is worthless when it might count the most. The only thing about any city the home office cares about is how to make money in it. The home office, it should be remembered, is always in somebody else's home. ●
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