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Kyle Eller: Welcome to the global economy

A few months ago, when I was working on an article about high-tech back to school gifts, I stopped in at the Office Depot outlet across the street. Along the chain of employees I spoke to, I bumped into a talker -- it's a hazard of interviews tha...

A few months ago, when I was working on an article about high-tech back to school gifts, I stopped in at the Office Depot outlet across the street.
Along the chain of employees I spoke to, I bumped into a talker -- it's a hazard of interviews that sometimes your source has a totally unrelated story he thinks is more important than your questions. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not, but regardless, guess which story dominates the interview?
This fellow described his impressive resume and ticked off some Duluth employers that he'd contacted on his arrival in town, without any success. He lamented his lot, being stuck in a low-paying retail job.
I didn't keep track of this guy, but presuming he's still at Office Depot, he now knows even that won't be around much longer.
Sad story, right?
But get this: A rep from Office Depot corporate informed Murphy McGinnis reporter Pat Faherty on Wednesday that, while the Office Depot store downtown is closing after less than a year and those 20 employees would be out of work, the company has built a relationship with Duluth and would promote its online store to us.
Let me translate that: We're too big and impersonal to care about your measly local economy, but your money's still good. Don't forget to wing by the old Web site and give us your credit card number.
Welcome to the global economy, folks.
One can easily speculate on the company's failure here. There's a problem with parking downtown -- sometimes we have to drive around the block a few times looking for a spot and then plug a meter.
Many downtown businesses are closed on weekends, reducing retail weekend traffic for Office Depot. And frankly, the Office Depot selection wasn't that great. The store's primary competition on Miller Hill has much more floor space.
But I don't buy into the idea that Office Depot failed because of the downtown business climate. I mean, how much of a try did Office Depot give Duluth?
In its short time here, Office Depot did little to build awareness of itself. It's plausible that half of Duluth didn't even know Office Depot had a downtown store, since its greatest visibility came from national TV spots that didn't even mention an address.
And based on this, the company was able to conclude Duluth wasn't the right fit? Were they channeling Nostradamus?
At least we got a chance to invest all those public dollars that were burning a hole in our collective pocket and a chance to displace some existing businesses, including a scrappy, locally-owned theater company that's trying to make a go of things.
"They've got office supplies to sell, damn it!"
It would be one thing if this were an isolated event. Turns out this wasn't even the biggest event of last week. The global economy struck hard in Hoyt Lakes, with LTV Steel's earlier-than-anticipated closure.
For those scoring at home, that's more than 1,000 jobs.
Potlatch in Cloquet has had significant layoffs in the last year. There are rumblings of layoffs in Duluth's telemarketing industry.
I come from a working class background, and I have seen people go through layoffs. I know many who have been sweating things out in Cloquet all year.
So my heart goes out to those folks in Hoyt Lakes, particularly in light of the cruel circumstances, with "surprise" bankruptcy declarations and accelerated closing dates, some announced right at the holidays.
Big business can be, and often is, casually capricious and cold-hearted.
We all know the days of walking to the corner store are disappearing in most of America, maybe forever.
But Duluthians concerned about the city's economy might cast their gaze on our propensity for wooing megabusinesses that pay low wages with few benefits -- businesses which may then skip town at a moment's notice.
The city has recently drawn attention to its efforts to help small businesses. To me, that was the best economic news of the last 12 months.
I'm no economist, but it seems to me that money is better spent here than on deals like Office Depot. These grow-your-own efforts are often laughably inexpensive compared to the big-ticket deals, and off the cuff, I'd guess the return on investment is higher.
The profits these businesses make don't go to New York or Los Angeles or Minneapolis or Beijing, they stay in Duluth, where taxes on them go to schools and pothole repair and community policing and even -- gasp! -- economic development.
Local business owners have a vested interest in success, here and now, since they generally can't just close a store or 70. Moreover, they have a connection to the community, its environment and its people.
Perhaps the city can find ways to augment these efforts?
Or perhaps conservatives have a point. In Sioux Falls, a low tax burden attracts companies and workers.
Duluthians might also think about where they spend their money. Even growing up in Moose Lake we heard the mantra of "buy local." That's never been more true than it is now.
If Duluth is to thrive, its success will come from its people and their attributes -- their skill, ingenuity, work ethic and, yes, their money. Maybe the answers start with building on those strengths.
It will take longer, but maybe it'll stay longer, too.

Kyle Eller is news editor at the Budgeteer News. Contact him at 723-1207 or at kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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