One of the reasons I began blogging here is that the Chronicle suddenly began suppressing my letters-to-the-editor and I was looking for other outlets for my views. Any criticism of the DCEDC and its executive director, Roger Hopkins, seems to be off-limits. However, I cannot omit my opinions on his involvement in warehouse mania because I believe it’s a significant factor that should not be ignored.

I do not know whether this has anything to do with their publisher’s involvement with the DCEDC or not, but I think that’s a fair “guesstimate” since they had no problem printing at least a half-dozen of my letters on other topics from March-August. Also, I know of others whose letters expressing opposition to the Business Center project also have not been published. Bottom line is, I feel that they are abusing the public trust. And since I’ve kind of made a nuisance of myself over my beliefs, I’ll probably never see my opinions on newsprint again. Therefore I blog.

Letter to the Editor, 22 November 2005

Editor:

Many of the people who publicly support the Keating/Rockefeller/Business Center warehouse project have a financial interest in it. Most of those who are vocal in opposition would be living close to it. More of us who live in the city and who don’t have such high personal stakes should take a closer look and hop off the fence, one way or another.

That’s what I did, and have since joined the folks who have seen the plans and say this warehouse has the size of Godzilla and all the charm of Stalag 17.

Godzilla? You bet. If you add up the square footage of Goodyear, Nestle, Panduit and the new Target warehouse/distribution centers, you will still come up shy of the 6 million square feet of the proposed Business Center. When fully built out, it will have eaten up 343 acres of farmland for an industry that is one of the poorest in terms of job density and taxes assessed per square foot. In return they would put 2500 more trucks per day out on the roads (this is on top of the 800 per day that Target will bring), many of them inevitably showing up on Route 23. There would be more train traffic, too.

When it comes to other impacts I suggest that we learn from South Brunswick, NJ, where at least four newspaper articles in about as many months report traffic troubles, drainage problems, trucks going the wrong way, and loss of farmland and rural feel. The predictions of the DeKalb warehouse opposition match what’s actually come to pass in a previously rural area of New Jersey. Not so coincidentally, this town lies very near the Rockefeller Group’s Exit 8A-NJ logistics area near the New Jersey Turnpike.

What’s just as disturbing is the warehouse-mania trend in general. When you first heard this proposal, did you ask yourself, “Why another warehouse?” I sure did, and have been working on the answer ever since.

One factor is a local one: the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp (DCEDC) has warehouse deals falling into its lap. It seems quite content with this and uninterested in pursuing other industry. We should not be surprised. The DCEDC is a founding member of the I-39 Logistics Corridor Association and the two organizations share the same executive director and the same headquarters. There’s no pretense about seeking the diverse growth that our Comprehensive Plan and our economic development mission calls for, and I wonder that our city and county governments have tolerated this bias. The situation reflects a stunning lack of imagination. We deserve better.

But let’s go back to the warehouses-falling-into-the-lap thing, because that’s part of the big picture. Warehouse mania is happening all over the country. It’s a boom industry (meaning offers of incentives for locating here are absurd, by the way). Retailers are building more of their own distribution centers, new companies are springing up that specialize in logistics services, and developers who used to build all kinds of things now concentrate much of their resources in warehousing and distribution. Meantime the warehouse projects are growing larger and any city with easy access to a major roadway, unused land next to it and a ready, steady workforce is a target. In Lacey, WA, the process of warehouse saturation is happening so fast that the local government recently felt compelled to impose a moratorium so they could study the implications of this one-sided development.

What’s driving the boom is an interplay of globalization factors that currently favor the logistics industry as an offshoot of the import business. One of the most important of them, apparently, is the growth of Foreign Trade Zones (FTZs, administered by the Import Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce) within the U.S. For example, this year the FTZ Board granted Zone status in Rochelle and in the Joliet area on behalf of new, large logistics operations.

FTZ member companies can defer, reduce or even eliminate Customs duties and excise taxes on imported goods depending on the ultimate disposition of those goods. They enjoy expedited Customs procedures. They can store the goods in an FTZ indefinitely or move them from zone to zone without penalty. Rockefeller Group is crazy about them; it has obtained FTZ status in at least five warehouse projects, touts their benefits to prospective tenants, even offers FTZ consulting services and seminars.

The trouble is, FTZ rules are supposed to help domestic manufacturers by eliminating the disincentives for using foreign parts in U.S.-made products. They’re not meant as a boon to companies storing goods made in manufacturing operations overseas, nor for retailers simply importing dollar-store stuff. Would the warehousing of DeKalb contribute to the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base? What happens to the warehouses when these little loopholes get tightened?

The job of the DeKalb City Council, then, is very clear but not in the least easy, and to their immense credit they resisted pressure for a November 28 rubberstamping of the project. Bravo!—for they must evaluate not only immediate impacts of the Business Center on the neighbors, local infrastructure and quality of life vs. any jobs-and-taxes benefits, but also the amount of warehousing the city could take on without becoming overly vulnerable to a “bust” in the business cycle. My ultimate hope for all the reasons stated above is that the Council says “no” to annexation for warehouse use and sends DCEDC back out to scout other industry. With or without that “dream” outcome, however, the Council should develop long-term policies for preserving the unique charms of our city as well as for protecting the diversity of our local economy.