tampabay.com

A victory for business would be bad for kids

By ARNOLD SILVER
Published April 13, 2007


A top priority of a society's responsible adults is the protection and guidance of its young people. Yet this priority was apparently forgotten in the recent Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission's quick approval of Wal-Mart's desire to build a new store on Barclay Avenue, within quick walking distance of Powell Middle School and not far from Chocachatti Elementary and Nature Coast Technical High schools.

It is unlikely that when the original comprehensive plan for the 22-acre plot was approved in 1983 anyone foresaw that the area designated for commercial use would be devoted to a vast big-box store. Undoubtedly several smaller stores, less unsightly, were contemplated. Undoubtedly, too, no one would have foreseen the need for a huge parking lot and a widening of the boulevard to accommodate increased traffic.

There are thus legitimate grounds for questioning the type of commercial use with which the area is now being threatened.

The threat is real, and not only to the concerned residents of Pristine Place and Silverthorn, who turned out April 9 in large numbers to protest the proposed construction. It is especially threatening to the thousands of school children in the nearby area.

Cunning in how they locate stores, Wal-Mart officials seem to have forgotten that they have another store just 2 miles away on State Road 50. Why then was another store needed - with even two others within a 10-mile radius - on a road much less traveled and less accessible than SR 50?

Part of the answer, I believe, is precisely the proposed store's proximity to the schools. I imagine Wal-Mart will make every effort to lure the students to its new premises, with tempting sales pitches, bargains and refreshment stands. Hanging out at Wal-Mart after class will be the fashionable thing to do. The store's motive, in this aspect of its operations, would seem to be to train the young to be devoted Wal-Mart shoppers. As the hucksters would say, the students form a huge demographic group, and an especially vulnerable one.

Wal-Mart, of course, has a perfect right to get its profits from everyone out there, but Hernando County has a right to protect its young from being corrupted.

Schools' efforts to teach students that there are other values in life besides shopping and buying material goods and gadgets will be inevitably undermined by Wal-Mart, whose hidden slogan might well be "Get them early and we've got them for life." That our youth have the potential to be something more than consumers is not in Wal-Mart's interest to emphasize. I doubt there is one teacher in the schools who will not sigh as this business behemoth gets ready to suck students into its maw.

The decisions of two decades ago could be modified to allow only certain types of establishments to do business in a commercial zone, just as we disallow pornography stores and topless bars to operate anywhere.

We can hope the members of the County Commission, who will exercise the final vote on this important matter next month, will make the protection of our students, rather than tax revenues, their prime consideration.

Arnold Silver is a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts. He lives in Silverthorn. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.