|Ronald McDonald Ė neither saint nor Cotatiís savior
Cotati’s Planning Commission recently acted thoughtfully and forcefully to protect Cotati from circling commercial vultures in a time of financial weakness. Yet they have been characterized in Jud Snyder’s column on March 1 as cowering in a spineless way and kicking the can down the road on a solution to Cotati’s potential money shortfalls.
What is going on here?
The issue of the formula-based fast food ordinance hit the planning commission with dire warnings from the city staff about extreme vacancy rates and financial ruin for Cotati. The staff’s solution: Gut Cotati’s hard-fought compromise regulation of these businesses and let the corporate lowlife have our town.
An unusually large number of Cotatians showed up in opposition to the staff proposal. The planning commissioners asked for accurate and relevant information. Lacking that information, listening to the citizens and hearing no convincing argument in favor of this action, they were ready to vote 3-1 against the proposal. At that point, city staff withdrew the proposal, promising to bring it back at a future time. Contrary to the Community Voice headline, the city, not the commission, balked.
Apart from the maneuverings and reporting on one particular meeting, we have to ask a few questions. Why now? Why fast food restaurants?
Have Cotati residents shown up en masse to demand more calories with less nutrition? Have Cotati’s struggling restaurants pounded down the door to say they want to be undercut by sub-standard food from countries with poor environmental laws? Have people trying to get by in an economy gutted by unethical corporations come forward to humbly beg for more low-wage, no-benefit jobs in Cotati? Of course not. So, why has this issue come to the table?
Luckily we don’t have to guess the answer. The Cotati staff presentation answered it, saying “commercial property owners, leasing agents and commercial developers (have identified Formula Fast Food Regulations) “as a deterrent to leasing existing commercial space and development of vacant lands.”
The staff also said that Cotati’s reputation for not welcoming formula businesses discouraged, not just fast food operations, but also a variety of other businesses from considering Cotati as a location. Really? Do people looking to make an honest buck turn away from a business opportunity because they won’t be able to locate next to a Jack In the Box? Really?
Is it really a problem we only have room for four more fast food outlets in our little town? If so, how many more do we need? Eight? Twenty? I find it impossible to read the minds of these unknown discouraged business owners. And, the city staff would solve this thorny problem by drop kicking all the numerical limits. Really?
In truth, property owners, agents and developers are looking for ways to rent property during the worst economic period since the 1930s. And, the only easy way to do it is to attract the most greedy and least scrupulous corporations, the ones who sit on the edge of every depressed town in the United States, siphoning away what health there is in the local economy as fast as you can say cheeseburger.
I’m not saying cheeseburger. I’m shouting asparagus. I’m saying hard times are the times it is most important to hold on to our small town character. Let’s not look back in better times and say, “Those were the days when the musical, creative and forward-thinking people of Cotati turned their city into just another suburb.”
I don’t like these empty storefronts. I feel sad for those who, at all levels of income and assets, are suffering with the loss of our economic wealth. But, changing the formula-based fast food ordinance, even attracting a few more of these businesses in Cotati, only puts lipstick on a pig.
Instead, let’s do what Sonoma, Healdsburg and independently owned, Cotati-born Oliver’s are doing. Let’s work with “Go Local” to attract new businesses who will invest in a long-term presence in our town. Let’s go after businesses we love, from cabinetmakers to shoes, from green and sustainable to bookkeeping and fitness. Let’s send Assistant City Manager Micah Hinkle knocking on these doors. And then, let’s send him around to talk to each of Cotati’s businesses and find out what they need to stay afloat and grow.
Talk and listen. It’s harder than sending a confusing signal by changing a perfectly good ordinance, but it’s better. Talk and listen with lots of people, including those who don’t own property.
This is how we can build relationships, put rumors of our hostility to business to rest and make a foundation for the growth we want in Cotati.
I have to mention Snyder’s article, an entire column mocking the planning commissioners for doing their job at a meeting he did not attend.
But, instead of picking on Jud, let’s think about one of his ideas. (Jud gets a bee in his bonnet fairly often; we can handle it.) Instead of adopting the kind of thinking that once built shopping malls and put downtowns out of business, maybe Jud would lead an effort to fund some of his tourism ideas like horse and buggy rides or weekly music in the park.
The Cotati City Council is a supporter of Health Action, who has a goal to “expand the capacity of the local food supply chain to create more jobs in Sonoma County.” This is the right direction. Let’s end our addiction to the idea of formula-based fast food business as our saviors. Let’s end it for good.
Adrienne Lauby has lived more than a decade in Cotati. She was active in support of Cotati’s 2007 Formula Fast Food Ordinance.