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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Publisher’s Notebook:

• Retail Tinkering in Malibu •

BY ANNE SOBLE

The current clamor for greater government control of the Malibu retail sector raises the specter of arbitrary composition formulae, rent control and price setting that should be cause for local deliberation and concern.
The city’s major foray into the commercial retail arena has resulted in a mini-mall that is so disliked by many local residents that they are talking about boycotting it. Isn’t this “voting with one’s feet” a better way for a community to affect commercial composition?
And isn’t this what Malibuites have already done with their shopping patterns, according to city and U.S. Census data? These patterns had begun changing long before many of the smaller, so-called Mom and Pop businesses started closing their doors.
Major among the changes is the pronounced shift toward traveling to shop at the same big box stores that many residents say they don’t want moving to Malibu. Locals complained publicly about the limited inventory and higher prices of smaller businesses. Many of these business owners said they were already losing ground long before shopping centers started changing hands at artificially inflated prices and the new owners wanted to recoup their investments.
I knew many of these business owners personally, and many said that if they had local support, they could have kept pace with rising rents. But all the recent heartfelt outpourings to the contrary, they said that most residents in the community did not support them financially.
Is what’s going on now a case of “You don’t know what you’ve lost ’til it’s gone?” Or is it that Malibuites who return home with carloads of groceries, clothes and holiday gifts, courtesy of the savings and convenience of mass purchasing, also are voting with their feet?
People cannot expect shopping center owners to subsidize marginal businesses if the people clamoring for those subsidies are not patronizing those businesses regularly. One of the owners of a small local business that closed down eight years ago, who still lives in Malibu, told me, “I loved my shop. It could still be open, but the same people who came to my free events were not buying my merchandise because it might cost a little less elsewhere. There’s a lot of hypocrisy here.”
A list of businesses that supposedly have been driven out by larger competitors and high rents that is currently circulating in Malibu has to be looked at carefully. Many of the businesses that are listed were shuttered because of their owners’ decision to retire, get divorced, move elsewhere, change professions, or they just were not doing well. Some of them shut down quite a few years ago before the current adverse economic factors.
If residents want more government oversight of the retail sector and the possible creation of a kind of welfare system for marginal businesses, they might consider the adage, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.” The City of Malibu already has strong planning and zoning mechanisms, including the conditional use permit process, that could enable an interested and active public to play a role in determining future retail mix.
A well-balanced business marketplace that meets the needs of the local community has to answer to the marketplace of ideas. If Malibuites want to upend the market economy, they have to be willing to support businesses that can’t succeed on their own with more than slogans.

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