I’m well aware that Northampton, like other communities across the country, needs jobs for its citizens. But I also think that municipalities need to ask hard questions about the companies providing the jobs, and the goods they produce.
The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported last week (http://www.gazettenet.com/2010/08/16/not-so-easy-breezy) on a tiny start-up company in Easthampton and a plant belonging to a multinational corporation. Urban Power USA, Inc. is producing 10-foot wind turbines that can be installed on the roofs of small buildings to produce affordable electric power – according to the company, the smallest turbine can pay for itself within three years. But the company hasn’t been able to secure backing from any financial institutions or state agencies, and is currently being funded by founder and turbine inventor Mark Maynard’s retirement savings. If Urban Power is able to begin manufacturing and selling the turbines at its projected rate, it hopes to add 100 jobs in the next two years.
Meanwhile up the road in Northampton, the Coca-Cola Company, which produces sugar water laden with chemicals, is expected to announce a $33 million expansion of its bottling plant in the city, which would create an estimated 40 new jobs. Mayor Clare Higgins announced at the Aug. 19 city council meeting that if Coke selects Northampton as the site of its new bottled juice plant, the state of Massachusetts will pay 75% of the $1.5 million needed to reconstruct the failing water pump station that serves the Coke plant and the rest of the businesses and homes in the Industrial Park neighborhood. (http://www.gazettenet.com/2010/08/20/northampton-awaits-word-coca-cola-expansion?CSAuthResp=%3Asession%3ACSUserId|CSGroupId%3Asuccess%3AVPlbGdTr7dn2Gorbd0k6jQ%3D%3D&CSUserId=38792&CSGroupId=5)
The city has also offered Coca-Cola a tax break of almost $35,000 if it locates the new juice plant here. Chad Cain’s Aug. 20 Gazette story reported that some city councilors believed that Coke was paying part of the cost of reconstructing the pump station, and they noted that many of their constituents opposed the tax break. Higgins responded, “If you want to go back to Coca-Cola and tell them to pay for it, OK. We’ll lose the jobs.”
This is a typical municipal roll-over-and-play-dead response to large corporations. According to the city’s 2005 Water System Master Plan Update, (http://22.214.171.124/DPW/Water/Water%20System%20Master%20Plan%20Update%202005.pdf), in 2003, Coca-Cola was the city’s largest industrial water consumer by far, using more than 117 million gallons of water a year. According to the master plan, this was almost 10% of the water consumed in the city that year, based on figures from 2002. The next largest industrial consumer, Pro-Corp in Florence, used almost 33.5 million gallons.
I’d like to hear the mayor and city councilors publicly address a few questions:
- Has Coke’s municipal water use increased since 2003, when the master plan was published?
- Has Coke’s water use had a detrimental effect on the city’s water supply, especially this year, when we’ve had drought conditions and restricted water use for individuals all summer?
- Has Coke’s 455,000-square-foot plant used enough water in the last 30 years that the Bradford Street pump station has had to be reconstructed prematurely? What is the average life span of pump stations in other parts of the city?
- Why are we, Northampton and Massachusetts taxpayers, footing the bill for the reconstruction of a pump station that’s supplying 10% of the city’s water to a plant run by a multinational corporation? Are these economic perks for Coke worth 40 jobs?
Careful perusal of the two Gazette articles, and one in the Aug. 19 Valley Advocate, raises much larger questions about what kind of manufacturing businesses we want in our cities. Coke is taking our water — a public resource — and adding sugar and artificial flavoring, putting it into plastic bottles, and selling it at an enormous profit. Tom Sturm’s Advocate story notes that the new turbine manufacturer, Urban Power, is in “keeping with one of the City of Easthampton’s expressed goals of remaking the former manufacturing town into a regional pioneer in renewable energy production.” More questions:
- Is the city of Northampton inviting such businesses to locate in our city?
- How is offering tax breaks to Coke helping to improve the health of our citizens and the planet?
- Will Coke be using local produce in their new line of chilled juices?
- Will the juices be packaged in plastic bottles, which can’t be recycled into anything useful and end up clogging landfills in Northampton and around the country?
- Will these juices at least be organic?
You can bet not. Other companies that bottle this stuff truck it in from multiple countries (for fruit and juice, typically the Southern Cone of South America, where summer occurs during our winter) and mix it into one big juice stew, making it extremely difficult to trace any contamination problems (witness the latest debacle with factory-farmed eggs in Iowa). At the very least, the fruit will be brought in from Florida and California.
Can’t we do better than this in Northampton? Can’t we invite some nice alternative energy companies to town and give them some tax breaks?
In the interest of keeping this blog post local and short, I’m not even getting into the broader question of global corporate citizenship. If anyone wants to read more about that, see these links about Coke in Colombia and India: