A strong small-business agenda

EDITORIAL You read the academic journals these days, or peruse economic-development Web sites, and everyone seems to be talking about sustainable urban economics. It’s as if the mantra that was first put forward by Jane Jacobs, David Morris, and a few others a quarter century ago is very much in the mainstream today: Cities function best with diverse economies dominated by locally owned businesses, with money circuutf8g within the community. Cutting-edge restaurants talk about serving locally grown food. Beverage savants want local beer and wine. Just about everyone — including the mayor and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce — wants to participate in a program called Shop Local.

It’s a wonderful, encouraging trend — but if it’s going to make any real difference in this city, it has to become a lot more than lip service. Consider: Just as Mayor Newsom was proudly signing on to a Shop San Francisco program, the mayor and the supervisors were busy approving plans to allow Home Depot — an anticompetitive out-of-town corporation that destroys local small business and undermines the entire concept of a strong local economy — to build a giant store on Bayshore Boulevard.

 It’s taken legal action by Sue Hestor and the neighborhood leaders to derail (for now) the mayor’s plans to build high-end condos all over the eastern neighborhoods — threatening hundreds of locally owned businesses.

Downtown business leaders and the groups they fund still push for policies that hurt most of the businesses in the city — and too many small-business people still go along.

Here’s the reality: Supporting small businesses — and moving San Francisco toward a sustainable economy — requires a lot more than a slogan. The people who are behind the Shop Local movement know that. They’re promoting a wide range of national and local policies designed to change not only attitudes but the direction of public policy.

San Francisco, a progressive city known for its wonderful, lively, unique neighborhoods, ought to be a national leader in the battle. But others (Philadelphia, for example) are moving way ahead. This city is still stuck in an ancient (and regressive) economic mind-set.

There are a number of key things the city can do to turn that around and become a truly small-businessfriendly place — and most of them go far beyond public-relations efforts and cutting through red tape. The basic approach to policy needs to change; here are a few ways to start:

 Stop allowing big chains to come into town. That’s not exactly rocket science, and it isn’t so hard either: Hayes Valley and North Beach both have "formula retail" laws that restrict the chains, and there’s talk of doing the same in Potrero Hill. But why does this have to be fought block by block? Why not a citywide ordinance that protects every neighborhood commercial district — and, more important, keeps the life-sucking big-box giants away from the city altogether?

 Make small, locally owned businesses part of the planning process. The city’s own (limited) studies have made clear that the type of development the mayor and the current city planning leadership has in mind would damage local businesses, particularly in the repair, distribution, and small manufacturing areas. That alone ought to be grounds to change directions. Why not a checklist for every new project that includes the question: Will this displace existing locally owned businesses? If the answer is yes, the project should be rejected.

Take progressive business taxes seriously. There’s almost certainly going to be an effort this fall to change the city’s business-tax structure, with one of the goals being an increase in overall revenue. That’s great, and it ought to happen — but the tax rates have to be shifted too, so that a tiny local retail outlet doesn’t pay the same amount as the Gap. (Socking big-box outlets with a special tax or fee — possibly based on the fact that they are by nature car-driven operations — might be a nice way to bring in some cash.)

You can’t be friendly to small local businesses these days without taking sides in the national economic war — and that means coming out against the big chains. Until San Francisco does that, all the talk of supporting local merchants will amount to nothing. SFBG