Two weeks ago, the Rolla City Council voted unanimously to spend (at least) $445,000 to bring a Walgreens pharmacy to Rolla and build the first 600 ft. of a proposed extension of Hwy 72.
Questions that hardly get asked, much less answered are:
1: What will Walgreens contribute to Rolla that warrants the City spending $445,000 of tax revenue?
2: What about Rolla's other pharmacies: Sinks, Hillcrest, Country Mart, Kmart and Wal-Mart? Is it fair to spend taxpayer money, partially collected from these businesses, to bring competing enterprises to Rolla?
3: What will we gain by extending Hwy 72? Are there better or less expensive alternatives?
I've asked a number of people what Walgreens offers that other businesses in Rolla don't. The only answer I've received that bears repeating is that they keep their pharmacies open 24/7. But, according to Wikipedia only 27% of Walgreens pharmacies are open 24 hours. How about Rolla? Reading over the contract, I see nothing about pharmacy hours. But let's suppose the Rolla Walgreens will be open 24/7? Couldn't we ask Rolla's existing pharmacies to bid on how much they would require to provide a comparable service? I suspect it would be considerably less than $445,000.
Question 2 has broader implications. Is it fair for a City to spend tax revenue to bring to town enterprises that will compete with existing businesses? This is demanding that local businesses which are already paying taxes and contributing to the community subsidize their own competition. Perhaps this is legal, although in my opinion, it shouldn't be. It certainly is not fair play.
It not only hurts existing business, it hurts the entire community. It is well known that locally owned businesses such as Sinks and Hillcrest contribute far more to a local community than corporate businesses. (See for example, articles like this one on economic impacts.) And according to Consumer Reports, Oct. 2003, "Independent [pharmacies] won top honors ... besting the big chains by an eye-popping margin." So, whenever possible, shop at locally owned businesses. It makes sense: dollars and sense.
Walgreens and the Hwy. 72 extension would seem to be separate issues. Of what use is a 600 ft. stretch of highway, which will almost certainly cost far more than the $150,000 budgeted for its construction? The rest of the extension won't even be built for at least four years, and may, in fact, never be built.
In a previous letter (RDN, 11/13/07) I detailed how we could speed up the flow of traffic through Rolla by routing Hwy. 63 traffic along I-44 between the North Hwy 63 exit and Hwy E and making some inexpensive enhancements to existing roadways. Don Giesler (RDN 12/26/07) suggests continuing Lions Club Drive from Hwy 72 to the Hwy V Interchange, which would be far more efficient than extending Hwy. 72. Apparently neither of these ideas are under consideration. Developers want a fifth Rolla West interchange and/or a Ridgeview retail shopping district. Would this be good for Rolla? I think not. It would be expensive and disruptive; and with the price of gasoline going in no direction but up, we would do well to plan for a more compact city, and try to avoid further urban sprawl. There is still plenty of unused commercial land available in Rolla.
So, what else could we do with $445,000? Three possibilities are:
1. We could give City employees the well-deserved raises that they were denied this year.
2. We could use this money to reduce Rolla's excessive utility prices.
3. We could partner with UMR (MST by time you read this) on its proposed high-tech research park. This at least has the potential for creating real industry and high paying jobs, which Rolla needs far more than additional retail businesses and highway interchanges.
(Tom Sager is a retired professor at the University of Missouri - Rolla. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com or at his website, www.tomsager.org)