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Saturday essay: Taxpayers as grocers? No thanks

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Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

There's talk of two new grocery stores locating in downtown Pittsburgh. Couple them with the grocery store being built in the Hill District and there could be three quite close together.

This is touted as good news for the growing number of residents — or those projected to move into what some call “grocery deserts,” places where grocery stores are few and far between. But it's not very good news for taxpayers who oftentimes foot part of the bill.

The Hill District store is heavily underwritten by the public. A proposed second grocer in the Market Square area might have half its development costs picked up by taxpayers. A third grocer is considering space near Market Square, too, in PPG Place. Development gurus are talking as if a taxpayer subsidy for this grocer is a given.

But why should anybody (other than private investors) grease anyone's ability to sell groceries? Why should taxpayers assume capital costs (and the risk) that should be borne solely by a developer? Simply put, they shouldn't.

Nonetheless, a cottage industry exists that pimps for this perversion. If it's not the argument that taxpayer-funded grocery stores improve the “nutritional choices” in poor neighborhoods, it's the argument that taxpayer-underwritten urban grocers boost the “synergies” of tony Downtown living.

But it's not up to taxpayers to finance “choices” or “synergies.” That's up to the marketplace. If there's a bona fide demand in those marketplaces, such stores will thrive and grocers and residents alike will benefit. If there's not, taxpayer subsidies only throw bad money after bad money.

— Colin McNickle

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