By Arthur Zaczkiewicz, MSW
News of Macy’s store closure at the Hudson Valley Mall is a serious blow to the local economy as over 70 jobs are expected to be lost. That’s on top of about 70 jobs that were eliminated when J.C. Penney shuttered its doors at the mall last year.
Facebook users expressed sadness – and confusion, too, over the announcement. How could this happen when there’s several hotels being built nearby? New hotels means business is good, right? Then there were a small handful of others who said the community who scared off Niagara bottling and its host of proposed jobs deserved this and/or was cursed. We could have used those jobs – especially in light of the Macy’s closure, right? Well, no.
While the Niagara plant proposal (and its subsequent demise), retail store closures and new hotel construction seem to be disconnected events, I would assert that they are all driven by a single, powerful – and possibly unstoppable – force: you.
As reported in great detail in the pages here, the proposed Niagara Bottling plant at Tech City was an exhaustive, emotional affair that resulted in a positive transformation of the community – especially in regard to increasing transparency.
The proposed project triggered the gathering of a strong, and unified majority that stood up against the proposal. Partnerships were formed between community groups. Meetings were held, and events staged – all lubricated by social media.
Citizens gathered and found common ground, which ultimately morphed into a single voice that clearly said this was not a suitable project. Clean, safe and readily available drinking water belongs to the people first.
It was awe-inspiring because citizens themselves made this happen. You made this happen.
Unfortunately, Niagara picked up and moved its project just two hours away, to Bloomfield, Conn. And now that community is trying to sort through many of the same issues that Kingston struggled against.
One of the key issues of the Kingston project was that of transparency and properly informing the public. How could Niagara strike a deal with city officials so stealthily? Why wasn’t the proposed project presented to the public earlier? What happened? Where’s the watchdog?
Well, that watchdog was once known as the “Fourth Estate,” which is the free press – free from censorship and influence. Years ago while working for the Times Herald-Record, as it was known then, a free press meant long hours. Back in the 1990s, in Ulster County, the Record had a bureau in New Paltz, Ellenville and in Kingston – with several reporters, photographers and editors staffed at each. For my part I covered school board meetings, town board meetings, planning meetings and zoning board meetings as well as checking in on local police blotters and responding to accidents, fires and crime scenes. It was exhausting, but exciting. No two days were alike.
And I wasn’t the only reporter attending those meetings or being at a crime scene or accident. Other reporters on hand were from the Poughkeepsie Journal and, of course, the Daily Freeman. And then there were reporters and editors from several weekly newspapers too. At a town board meeting or a city council meeting, it was not uncommon for three or four reporters to be in the room.
But you changed that.
Today, many of the same newspapers exist, but the coverage is far less. The Record has just one bureau in Ulster. And the Freeman has severely reduced its staff. It’s rare to see just one reporter at any municipal meeting these days. And that means the watchdog is gone, and it’s because people don’t read and buy newspapers like they once did. Of course they still read news stories, but it's online and readers, by and large, prefer not to pay for news.
People want news for free instead of a free press it seems.
Kingston is lucky, though. There are a handful of active citizens who demand greater transparency from their government. And elected and appointed officials are responding. But is it sustainable? I don’t know. I do know that it takes work and time, and a part of me wishes people would buy news again and let the media reclaim its role as watchdog.
Hotels and Malls
Shopping malls have an interesting history. Popularized by a post-World War II American Dream that included single-family homes in suburbia, the first enclosed shopping malls were modern marvels.
Real estate developers would buy up an old farm, find several “anchor tenants,” build the mall and lease the connecting stores inside to smaller specialty chains and independent retailers. The anchors tended to be larger department chain stores such as a Sears, J.C. Penney or Macy’s. But a shift has occurred over the past two decades that has weakened the revenue of department stores, which have been assaulted on a few fronts.
On one front is the growth of mass merchant discounters such as Target and Walmart who offer products are lower price points. Then there is the increase of off-price retailers such as TJX Cos. (which owns TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and Home Goods), Ross Stores and Burlington Coat. These retailers gobble up unsold inventory from department stores and sell it to bargain-savvy consumers.
Another assault is from online retailers that include Amazon as well fashion brands themselves (who also sell product at discounts via outlet stores such as the ones at Woodbury Common Premium Outlets).
Department stores themselves have tried to address these changes with better service, and prices. Recently, they’ve started opening their own off-price chains. Saks and Nordstrom have expanded with Off 5th and Rack, respectively. Indeed, there are now more off-price Nordstrom stores than full-price units.
And Macy’s just launched its own off-price store called “Backstage.”
Last November, I interviewed Terry Lundgren, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s. We talked about the retailer’s third quarter results, and he said the company was “disappointed that the pace of sales did not improve in the third quarter, as we had expected. Spending by domestic customers remained tepid, especially in key apparel and accessory categories.” Spending from tourists in New York City and other, larger metro areas was also down. Results did not bode well for the upcoming holiday shopping season.
And guess what? Sales slumped, so Macy’s responded with fiscal belt tightening and store closures. I’m sure other companies will follow Macy’s lead.
But what made all of this happen? Well, the question is not “what,” but “who.” And, yes, it was you who made this happen. Consumers seeking better pricing and deals, and shifting their dollars to mass retailers and off-pricers created this environment.
Of course, bargain hunting for cheaper goods is also done out of necessity. People are cash-strapped and financially stressed. Who has the money to spend at a department store? Moreover, why would anyone pay full price when you know it will be marked down anyway? Amid these changes is a change in household income as well. As the Pew Research Center notes, the middle class is evaporating. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
There’s also another trend that is impacting department stores, which are the largest sellers of apparel and accessories: overall, people are buying fewer clothing. Instead, they’re seeking out experiences such as eating dinner out more frequently. They’re also traveling more, and with gas so cheap, who would blame them? And that may help explain why there’s been an uptick in hotel construction in our little town of Ulster. People are frugal, but they still need a place to stay while on the road.
For my part, the lesson here is that citizens are more influential than we realize. But it is our intentions that can effect real change. For example, when consumers decide they need to be smarter shoppers, the impact can change the entire business landscape.
Similarly, when people decide to stop reading newspapers and paying for news, there are changes, and consequences too. And when citizens make intentions to protect natural resources such as water while calling for greater transparency in their government, that too can change things.
In the end, it’s all up to you.
Views expressed in this piece are of the respective author and not necessarily those of KingstonCitizens.org.