Building a Monopol-Eph: The potential costs of College development on Spring Street

The College’s recent expansion of its real estate portfolio on Spring Street tightens its grasp on Williamstown’s business and economic life. While projects including the new bookstore and the construction of a new Williams Inn will offer valuable services to students and Williamstown residents alike, the College’s bid for increased control over the Village Business District warrants greater scrutiny from the community.

The College currently controls much of the east side of Spring Street, leasing commercial space in College-owned properties to Pappa Charlie’s Deli, Hart’s Pharmacists, The Clip Shop, Tunnel City Coffee and Where’d You Get That!?, among other local businesses. These businesses are currently run independently from the College, but the management of these properties, including the control of rents, by a single owner presents potential challenges to fair and competitive business practices that should not be overlooked. The recent reopening of The Log as well as developments in the plans for the new bookstore and inn extend College ownership and management of businesses on Spring Street to the south and west sides of the street, escalating the potential risks associated with monopolistic practices.

Possible effects of reduced competition include limiting opportunities for new, independent businesses to enter the lucrative village business district, which Spring Street anchors. Especially high rents imposed by the College can present too large a cost to small businesses, deterring them from establishing new enterprises. In addition, the College’s enviable position as a tax-exempt non-profit with virtually unlimited capital affords it opportunities not provided to small businesses looking to enter the Williamstown market. In what would have been a sure nightmare for any entrepreneur, the College pushed its bookstore design and construction proposal through various town and College committees with little opposition as well as no capital or tax-induced impediments.

Despite these legitimate concerns, the College’s bid for increased control of Spring Street has been well-intentioned thus far and is not without some merits. The College is using its advantageous tax status and access to capital to develop the village business district and provide students and residents with improved and valuable services that may not have been developed on their own. Furthermore, the landlord stability that College-ownership provides has the potential to increase the longevity of Spring Street businesses as the tenant-landlord relationship stabilizes over time. In addition, College development can serve to increase foot traffic and economic activity in the downtown area, helping all area businesses and not just the businesses that the College manages directly or leases space to.

There is also an argument worth consideration, albeit a weak one, that claims that if the College did not own many of the commercial buildings in the village business district, chains would come in and push out local businesses anyway. Yet the town already has practices in place discouraging large chains that are not franchised from entering into business in Williamstown. Thus, the College should not be viewed as a benevolent protector of small, local businesses.

The establishment of new contracts with local businesses to supply or manage College-owned commercial enterprises, as is the case with The Log and will be the case with the bookstore, is also not a reason to champion the College’s building and business practices on Spring Street. For example, a local coffee roaster signing a contract to supply the new bookstore is very different from that same coffee supplier opening a brick and mortar store. The latter is an opportunity that is essentially erased by the former.

The College has its own agenda in acquiring and developing new properties. These projects, at times, may help some Spring Street businesses and augment the offerings available on Spring Street. In the long-term, however, such a trend of increased College ownership and control may hurt the economic vitality of the village business district as well as all consumers – students and town residents – by limiting the ability of small businesses to make their own decisions independent of the College’s wishes.

Due to the integral role that local businesses play in the community, the College should reexamine its policies in regard to property development. Expediency should not come at the expense of either public sentiment or fair business practices. Instead, the College should increase transparency in its development of Spring Street, appeal to students, community members and local business owners for input and be particularly mindful of Williamstown residents, who are here for far longer than four years.

Correction: April 19, 2016, 10:10 a.m.

A sentence of this editorial initially implied that College acquisition would decrease the Williamstown tax base. As the College does pay commercial and rental taxes on non-academic or student residential buildings, and as the recent reopening of the Log in fact has increased the tax base of Williamstown, that sentence has been removed.

Comments (3)

  1. Outstanding! One of the best Williams Record Editorial Board articles ever written.

    At some point you have to question the monopoly the school enjoys, and if that monopoly is truly friendly to “all” local residents- or perhaps a mechanism for gentrification that drives away the middle class and the impoverished.

    There was a time, not long ago, when the balance between town and gown was given a lot of consideration. Now it seems, the school is bent on the ownership and control of all the prime business real estate. Not as a friendly landlord- but as a real economic power, that leverages the population on margins. Even the local veterans hall has fallen “for a hotel.” It was a hall developed and named after an Eph in 1919- when the division between school and local normalcy (for lack of a better term) was not as dire.

    Town governance and the college seem fixated on this sense of “branding”, as if the only thing of value here is the bright shiny objects of the big purple machine. Certainly people are of more value than that- all people? The division that exists between locals and Ephs has never been larger- or perhaps smaller, because of displacement and gentrification policies.

    I have seen the division of wealth in this community increase steadily over my fifty years of life. There are many stamps in the timeline that has allowed this to be so- but none more prolific than the adoption of neoliberal economic policies by an entity that has such a massive economic advantage.

    How many who work at the school in mid level jobs can actually afford to live in Williamstown? Is this a playground for the elites- or is this a real community? The constant drumbeat of “Ephversity” has become a thought-terminating cliché. A sad moniker of advantage and dispassionate economic local policies…

    We are better than this. This town and college were formed with a land grant for a free school. How far away from the principles of “think globally, act locally” are we going to go, before we finally take a look in the mirror and ask what it is exactly that we are creating- and for gods sake why? To whom do we serve? If we do not seek economic justice for those around us- who then?

    I applaud this. It is not an easy thing to see with the short snapshot of a student perspective. Very well done!

  2. A Tax Free school and dabbling heavily in the business district. That is nice advantage. You get to make money off of the very thing that should promote prosperity for those who have to pay.

    What would Williams College pay in taxes if it were indeed taxed on all the property it held? What does it pay now? Of course it has to pay on what it creates as a for profit store. If the school was taxed on its dorms and such- what would the bill be? 20x higher than it is now? Would the local high school be falling apart? Would there be resources for other important projects that are the result of progressive taxation?

    The school has how much money? Five billion dollars? FIVE BILLION DOLLARS!!!

    I seem to recall that the college stole tips from its waitstaff recently? What does a worker get paid at Williams? How many are part time and do not enjoy benefits? How much has the new economic model bled into this “charitable” enterprise?

  3. The notion that these developments are being done with “good intentions” is a bold assertion. What facts do the writers have to prove that?

    This is about economy. The college is developing these spaces to make money. Not just in sales, but also to stay ahead of competition in the “for profit” education space.

    It would be nice if some more facts were presented. Exactly how many rental properties does the school own, and how much revenue do they create? How is the for profit side managed- and does this create an ethical contradiction?

    Is the college upholding its obligations to practice what it teaches, or is the way the buisiness side is being managed in a way that is purely monopolistic? A bully in sheeps clothes is still a bully.

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