Soundings: Stop and think

Soundings: Stop and think

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Stop & Shop’s proposal to shoehorn a new, 30,477-square-foot building into 29,047 square feet of land on Water Street in Tisbury has been under scrutiny ever since last February, when it was referred to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Recently we’ve heard members of the MVC complaining that the review process is dragging on, but wait a minute: if ever there was a case to be made for measuring twice and cutting once, this is it. This location is the unavoidable, un-drive-aroundable, year-round entryway to the Island, and its traffic empties directly into Five Corners, the failed intersection so complicated and congested in the summer that (with apologies to Yogi Berra) nobody goes there any more — it’s too crowded.

So thank you, Martha’s Vineyard Commission, for taking a few extra months to look at this project carefully.

Traffic and building scale have emerged as primary concerns in the MVC’s deliberations, and understandably so. But I’m equally concerned about an issue that’s being eclipsed by the supermarket’s proximity to Five Corners, the Island’s black hole of traffic physics.

The issue that resonates so strongly with this proposal from Stop & Shop — a business that is at once one of the Island’s largest employers, and one of the poorest-paying — is affordable housing.

Just two months ago, the Wal-Mart retail chain made national news when the press got hold of a photo from the staff area of a Canton, Ohio, store. “Please donate food items here,” said the sign, “so Associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.” Here was the nation’s largest retailer, seemingly admitting that its workers need a canned food drive to get by on their paltry wages.

In a way, the Island’s Stop & Shop stores are our very own Wal-Marts. The Stop & Shop chain is owned by the giant Dutch supermarket company Ahold, which lately has been posting net profits of more than $1 billion per year.

According to documents filed by Stop & Shop with the MVC, the Tisbury supermarket currently employs 96 people in-season — 85 of them part-time workers and just 11 full-time. The chain proposes to employ some 160 people in-season at its new, larger store. Again, more than 80 percent of them will be part-timers. So the expanded store does mean more Island jobs, but very few of them will be the sort of jobs the Vineyard economy urgently needs.

Wages of ten bucks an hour, even working full-time, simply can’t sustain a decent life on Martha’s Vineyard. By loading up on part-timers whose access to benefits and collective bargaining is limited, part-timers whose hours can be cut back just when the hard winter months begin, Stop & Shop manages to simultaneously bolster its corporate profits and shift the burden to the Island community.

The directors of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, in letters to the MVC, have asked for better numbers on how Stop & Shop employment practices impact the Island’s housing needs. The Commission can require the applicant to mitigate the impact of its building expansion on the Island’s housing problem, but to date I’ve seen nothing that reassures me that the agency has looked hard at this issue. Notably, in the MVC’s November staff report on the Stop & Shop application, the historic value of the house at 15 Cromwell Lane makes the short list of key planning concerns to be considered — but housing impacts do not.

David Vigneault, executive director of the regional housing authority, tried to raise awareness of this issue in an August letter to the MVC. “At any point in time over the last decade,” he noted, “a minimum of six to twelve S&S employees have utilized affordable rentals offered by the DCHRA and other Island housing organizations, with another half-dozen using rental assistance of one sort or another.”

We all need groceries, and we all need cashiers at the check-out lines to take our money and bag our food. Right now, those cashiers receive an unlivable wage, and the community pitches in with property tax dollars to help pay for the housing our Stop & Shop employees can’t afford.

All across the country, this shifting of costs from the private to the public sector is the Wal-Mart way. But do we really want it to be the Island way?

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