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2002-09-22
St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The Secret Life of Home Depot.

For at least the past nine months, Home Depot, and a corporate landowner on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, have been concealing their plans to build a 126,063 s.f. home improvment store along a crowded traffic corridor. Rumors were everywhere, but Home Depot was unwilling to be straight with the people of St. Thomas. When asked by local media outlets, Home Depot and the landowner "could not confirm" their plans to build. Yet when I went with local retailers to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources on St. Thomas this week, Home Depot's name was all over the permit applications. It turns out that Home Depot finalized architectural site plan drawings for this project a year ago, and the company obtained an Earth Change permit from the government last February to allow them to begin site preparation. About a month and a half ago, the property owner submitted a building permit application to construct a Home Depot. Such a building permit is the last step in the process for approval -- yet Home Depot has still refused to admit its interest in St. Thomas. Why such secrecy? As is often the case, local residents rise in opposition to megastores, so Home Depot tries to keep their intentions hidden until they can announce the award of all permits. Only this time, it did not work. A group called the Independent Retailer's Group (IRG) helped blow Home Depot's cover. Here's why: local merchants understand that the building materials market on the U.S. Virgin Islands is only $72 million a year, and a Home Depot would consume as much as $49 million. With population growth less than 1% a year, and with 29% of the island's families living in poverty, the community has neither the people, nor the discretionary income, to support a 68% increase in building materials supply. The fear is that Home Depot would cause serious economic dislocation on the island, and do irreparable harm to an industry that currently employs around 400 workers, with a payroll of nearly $8 million. Most of the existing merchants in this retail sector are small, family-owned hardware, paint or lumber operations. Small fish to a $53 billion shark like Home Depot. The IRG explains that the "landed cost" of its products reaching the islands makes it more expensive than, say, Puerto Rico or Miami to do business. In addition, local merhcants must also pay a Gross Receipts tax on sales, which increases the cost of goods. The IRG knows that Home Depot will mean closed businesses, lost jobs, and secondary impacts on their vendors, insurance carriers, transporters, installers, banks and media outlets. "These companies are corporate colonialists masquerading as friendly hometown companies," said Enrique Rodrigues, third generation owner of an auto parts/hardware store on St. Thomas. Locals also point out that Home Depot will generate at least 2,500 new cars a day to the crowded traffic corridor running by the site location, and will pose a serious public safety danger due to the flammability of its contents. Home Depots are essentially warehouses full of hazmats, and require special fire fighting capacity that does not now exist on the islands. Two Home Depots in the U.S. have had serious fires. To put this project in perspective, this is the single largest retail project in St. Thomas since 1493, and Home Depot's annual sales last year were 93 times larger than the annual operating budget of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Home Depot's silence about this project speaks volumes about the corporate citizenship of this company. They have successfully kept a very large secret on a very small island. But the damage it will bring will be like a retail hurricane.



What you can do: Want to help smoke Home Depot out of its hiding place? The company's Real Estate Manager on this project is Ken Baye. His phone number is 770-384-2917. Or contact Bob Baker, the Home Depot Project Manager for St. Thomas, who can be reached in Tampa at 813-243-2062. For U.S. residents who want to help people on the Virgin Islands protect their special treasure, you can email a letter to the editor of The Daily News on St. Thomas at: dailynews@vipowernet.net. Let the local media know about your close encounters with Home Depot. For contacts with the local IRG fighting Home Depot, contact info@sprawl-busters.com. Help divert Hurricane Depot from making landfall on the Virgin Islands.










 
 
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