COLUMN: When it comes to economic development, is it possible to be both local and affordable?


Editor’s note: The following is an op-ed written by Josh Durso, who is vice president of content. His weekend column examines headlines and stories being told in the Finger Lakes and beyond.

Consumers want “affordable” things, but who can afford to give them?

Last week, Ford announced it would stop taking orders for its 2022 Maverick pickup truck.

“We didn’t want to take more orders than we could make” Dean Stoneley, General Manager of Ford Trucks, explained recently. “We’re getting customers who might have bought a used car and are now buying the Maverick because it’s so affordable.”

It seems that 40 or 50 years ago the answer would have been “build more” if the demand was greater than the supply. For a long time, this has been the driving philosophy of the American economy. Obviously, a lot has changed. In Ford’s case, it wasn’t the first example of sales exceeding expectations. It happened with the Ford Bronco, as well as the Ford F-150 Lightning.

The question asked by many online, especially on social media: Why can’t Ford Motor Company produce more? Ford says it will resume orders in August 2022 and attributed it to supply chain issues. But supply chain issues or chip shortages are just a problem that American businesses are struggling with today.

In a world where prices seem to be only going up, there is a legitimate desire for affordability. Whether you are talking about vehicles of the present and the future; or something as simple as a restaurant or an item at the local grocery store.

Put aside the recent inflation headlines. I joined in 2014, covering local politics, economic development and economic policy as a journalist. Two years later, I became editor, then director of information. Now, as VP of content, years have been removed from daily reports – the attitude towards any economic development is more sustained than ever.

The above premise remains extremely true. Consumers are legitimately hungry for affordability. Regardless of the good purchased or the service traded, the feeling is that prices have risen too much, too quickly.

In an ironic twist, this is one of the factors that has contributed to my own fatigue with reporting on politics related to economic development in rural upstate New York. The playbook was the same over and over again. A company or an investor would come forward and propose a concept. Only to meet locals’ frustration regarding prices or type of product.

Banks, car washes and drugstore chains appear to be the only viable business models that have been replicated many times in the region.

Then I read a response to one of those social media starter posts that clarified the whole issue. Someone reached out to Facebook to inquire about a package that appeared to be in development. It was a restaurant chain that closed a few years ago. The responses were overwhelmingly in favor of a new restaurant. But he who was affordable. I’ll be the first to admit that the latter is a bit ambiguous. What is affordable in 2022? How do you define that in an industry where the margins are very thin to begin with? “Honestly Auburn can’t support these big chains anymore,” one Facebook user wrote in response to the survey. The property in question was a Denny’s located along Rt. 5. “That sucks, but maybe a budget local restaurant would be much better!”

The real question that needs to be answered is, what has gone wrong in our economy that massive companies like Ford can’t ramp up production when demand warrants, and small companies can’t can we afford to start or to last beyond a few months in a given community?

A large majority of small businesses barely survive. This is not hyperbole, it is fact. I am also not talking about small businesses with dozens of employees. I’m talking about the types of small businesses that thrive on a handful of workers and owners who often live in the day-to-day running of the main business.

There seems to be a disconnect between consumers and the realities of commercial exploitation. Especially in New York State. This isn’t a problem exclusive to New York, but it’s a real problem that virtually every business struggles with at some point in their existence.

Essentially, price and output are a balancing act. Prices must be high enough to support a lucrative business, so the business can continue to exist, but low enough to maintain a customer base.

And the consumer is, for lack of a better word, broken.

The consumer has been trained over the past two decades to see the prices of common goods fall as the technology of production improves. Think of most things bought on Amazon or Walmart. Yet the essentials of life like housing, transportation, heating, water, food, etc. have all risen, exceeding the wages people earn through working.

This well-meaning Auburn-area Facebook user makes an important point: Small towns like Auburn, Canandaigua, or Geneva won’t be able to sustain these restaurant chains long term. Especially since their prices keep rising. But these restaurant chains are often the only ones that can afford to operate at a loss or barely making money for years.

Local restaurants, owned by locals, don’t have the capital or financial backing to operate this way until a magic switch is flipped, making the business sustainable. And honestly, the latter usually never happens – and instead of seeing small businesses that have been around for years or even decades – we see small businesses that come and go faster than most even realize they have opened their doors.

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