"Be careful what you wish for" is what some Staten Islanders may be telling themselves this week. They would be the ones who vigorously opposed the proposed Nascar racetrack last year. I'm not sure what kind of bucolic development these protesters preferred in that large tract in the Bloomfield section of the borough, but they certainly won't be getting any such thing now. International Speedway Corp., which was denied the racetrack, has sold the property to the world's largest developer of distribution warehouses, ProLogis.
This latest development is rather ironical when one considers last year's near violent community meetings, when politicians and community activists railed against what they said was a traffic nightmare that would result from the three Nascar weekends a year. Instead, we'll have to deal with thousands of trucks arriving at the new facility 24/7, 365 days a year, belching out fumes into the once pristine environment.
In June 2006 I wrote a column defending the racetrack proposal because, even though I am not a racing fan, I recognized that Nascar would generate considerable revenue for the Island. Staten Island's president, James Molinaro, who lobbied for the ISC, commented bitterly on the new development: "You could have wound up with something very, very nice that would have endeared us to the rest of the world," he told a Staten Island Advance reporter. "They would have heard about us on Staten Island, and the image would have been improved by Nascar coming to our shores."
That's just the trouble, it seems. Liberal New Yorkers can be somewhat elitist and associate Nascar with rednecks and, gasp, Republicans. At the same time they were denouncing the proposed racetrack, they were salivating over the idea proposed by actor Paul Newman to have a Grand Prix racetrack in Brooklyn. Grand Prix — yes. Nascar — no.
That same discriminatory attitude is behind the anti-Wal-Mart fervor that scuttled the Staten Island site for the superstore giant.
There is one Target store on the Island and another on the way, yet this nonunion store doesn't generate the same animosity as Wal-Mart. What is it about this store that engenders such hostility? Is it even valid, or just liberal bias against a capitalist giant?
Recently, I caught the documentary "Wal-Mart — The High Cost of Low Price," and marveled at how manipulative it was. It was truly worthy of a Michael Moore, but Robert Greenwald was the director. In a review for the online TV Guide, Ken Fox asks, "How can a store that drives down property values and kills off mom-andpop businesses that can't afford to compete with Wal-Mart's high volume , low-price strategy be good for a community?"
In Mr. Greenwald's documentary, a scene opens with the heading, "WAL-MART DESCENDS ON MIDDLEFIELD!" Bulldozers are shown on the construction site for the town's new Wal-Mart. The camera pans to a notice in the window of H&H Hardware that reads: "Inventory Closeout Sale. After 43 years, H&H Hardware is closing down."
What does the filmmaker want his audience to think — that Wal-Mart was responsible for this? The store closed down three months before Wal-Mart opened, and the owner, Jon Hunter, has said that he told the film's producers not to link the store's closing to Wal-Mart. His business closed because of his own bad business decisions. That's not explained in the film.
Mom-and-pop businesses may go belly up when their rents are jacked up sky high, but not necessarily because of competition by a retail giant. The convenience store is called that because that's what it is — convenient — and as long as the economy is strong, customers will pay more for prompt good service and an accommodating environment that they can't get from the larger merchandiser. After a Home Depot opened nearby, two small Island hardware stores closed. Cause and effect? Hardly. One owner retired when the value of his property skyrocketed. The other closed because service was awful and business had steadily declined for years.
Staten Island turned down Nascar and Wal-Mart, but I'm not surprised that many natives have unrealistic pipe dreams about the Island's future. Ever since I moved to this lovely borough 29 years ago, I've known that it was only a matter of time before development would explode, and that time is now.
By all means, we should do everything possible to preserve the beauty of this borough, but we should make sure we don't allow prejudices to guide our decisions.
Correction from September 17, 2007:
Guy Molinari is the name of a president of Staten Island who lobbied for the International Speedway Corp. An incorrect name was reported in a column on page 2 of the September 14-16 New York Sun.