First, I want to emphasize that my critique should in no way diminish my appreciation for the effort members of the advisory committee and other project folks have put in. Clearly, it's been a massive amount of work. I am also on board with, in principle, the desirability of the project and an expanded Smith's across the road.
That said, based on what I've seen, I'm still not convinced the monopoly/conflict of interest issues have been adequately mitigated. In addition to the Gibson editorial, I've read through the newsletter sent to all residents on Friday as well as poked around the county's project website. I confess I have not read all 100+ pages of the (non-searchable) proposed ordinance nor all the documents on the site. (Frankly, it's rather poorly organized, in my opinion, and I couldn't find an objective summary or FAQ.) However, I believe I know enough to have a meaningful opinion. (And if I have missed something substantive, please do point me to what I missed.)
An obvious potential tenant for Mari-Mac is the co-op. I realize that given the fact that we (I am a co-op member) just spent a pile of money on a brand new building, we are obviously not moving any time soon. But we might want to do so sometime in the next 73 years, which is how long the Trinity Site agreement appears to run.
Also, the reason we (I am a co-op member) are out past the airport -- frankly, a rotten location -- is that after years of trying, the membership was unable to secure a better location. In fact, if I recall correctly, the membership did pursue a location at the Trinity Site, but this did not work out for some reason. This difficulty is clear evidence that retail real estate in Los Alamos is quite limited. The membership at the time decided, essentially, that a rotten location was better than no co-op at all.
Anyway, Kroger being landlord at Mari-Mac as well as a diverse anchor tenant at Trinity Site is a clear conflict of interest. An independent landlord at Mari-Mac would evaluate potential tenants based on their ability to provide revenue for the landlord; a landlord that also owns a large retailer itself will additionally consider whether tenants will compete with its own retail operation. This is a conflict of interest and a worrisome monopoly situation.
The new Smith's will be a "Smith's Marketplace", which has a much more diverse product offering than the existing Smith's grocery store. Based on the Smith's Marketplace in Salt Lake City, where I've been a couple of times, possible offerings include the following:
- Clothing. Is Beall's at risk?
- Drugs, cosmetics, and other pharmacy items. (The proposal is explicit that a pharmacy would probably be excluded.)
- Plants, flowers, and other garden stuff.
- Produce. Would a farmer's market be excluded from the parking lot?
- A butcher's counter.
Commenters on the previous post assure me that the monopoly issue was considered at length, but all I could find on the county's website was a couple of fairly vague paragraphs in the "NADG Written Response to TSRPAC Questions" PDF. So it's unclear to me what the result of this consideration was. If there was some concrete outcome, I'd love to see it.
Conflicts of interest aren't necessarily deal breakers, but they need to be mitigated. For example, is Kroger expected to sell Mari-Mac within a few years? Great -- put it in writing. Do we expect that these conflicts of interests will not in fact result in problematic limitations for our community? Again, great -- put it in writing. Give us some recourse if this expectation turns out to be unfounded. I'm sure that there are opportunities to write the necessary protections into the agreement in ways that also satisfy business realities.
I can assure you that Kroger, like any large corporation, does not care one whit about our community. Their sole purpose is to make money. This is how American capitalism works these days (withholding further comment on this matter for now). And if for some reason Kroger is exempt from this critique, they, like any company, face sale to a different company with fewer scruples. We should recognize this and write appropriate protections into the agreement.
It does seem the process has considered the monopoly/conflict of interest issue, but it's not clear what, if anything, has been done about it. The proposal needs to be more accountable to the community on this issue and how it is being mitigated.