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Battle Lines Drawn in War Over Walmart; Raw Milk Dairies Push for Delivery Option; Is Your Favorite Valley Business Family Friendly?; Live Sports Drives Up Cable Bills

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013
Jerrey Roberts/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo
Residents and activists protest a proposed Walmart development in Holyoke.

Battle Lines Drawn in War Over Walmart

Walmart has yet to submit to Holyoke city officials plans for its proposed store in the city. But opponents of the project are already reaching out to City Hall to express their deep concerns about the proposal.

Holyoke First, made up to residents of the Whiting Farms Road neighborhood where the store would be located, has sent a public letter to the city’s Planning Board asking that it hold a pre-application meeting on the project, open to the public. The letter, signed by Holyoke First founder Terri Laramee, outlines two dozen issues it would like the board to consider when it reviews Walmart’s plans. The group’s concerns were based on plans Walmart showed at a recent open house it held in the city. The company is proposing a 160,000-square-foot store that would include a full grocery store. Walmart says the store would bring 300 jobs to the city.

Holyoke First contends that the large store is incompatible with a residential area and that it would lower nearby property values, add to existing traffic headaches in the neighborhood and hurt existing businesses. The group is asking the Planning Board to require Walmart to “dramatically reduce” the size of the store, move parking spaces to the back of the building and “redesign a village retail approach that creates a streetscape that has neighborhood scale.” The group also calls for Walmart to be required to pay for an independent economic-effects report that considers “the demands that will be placed on city services, such as police and fire, and infrastructure costs” as well as the store’s potential effects on jobs at the nearby Kmart Plaza and grocery stores in the city.

“If significant changes to the proposed use of this land are not made to make it more harmonious with surrounding uses, it should be disapproved,” the letter concludes.

Holyoke First’s letter has been endorsed by Stop Walmart in Holyoke, a larger group of store opponents that includes community and labor groups.

The Walmart proposal, meanwhile, is shaping up as a big issue in this fall’s mayoral race. Mayor Alex Morse has come out strongly against the plan, saying the city “cannot support projects that trade jobs for jobs, nor can we allow the allure of short-term hiring to compromise our ability to create new and better jobs down the road.”

Opinion is split among Morse’s challengers: Danny Szostkiewicz and Jeff Stanek both oppose the project. Dan Boyle and Jim Santiago both support the proposal, saying it represents important economic development for the city.


Raw Milk Dairies Push for Delivery Option

Earlier this year, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts surveyed dairies that sell unpasteurized, or raw, milk and found some promising results: the farmers reported their sale of raw milk had almost doubled over the past four years, reports Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of NOFA/Mass’ Raw Milk Network.

“That’s more money going to the farm, more money staying in the local economy,” Pitcoff said. “That’s just good all around.” While the number of raw milk dairies in state is small—Pitcoff estimates there are 27 or 28—“it’s definitely a growing part of the agricultural sector.”

And it could grow even more, he said, if the dairies could deliver their product to customers. A bill pending in the state Legislature would allow farmers to deliver raw milk to customers’ homes and CSA farm share pick-up sites. While some states allow the sale of unpasteurized milk in grocery stores, in Massachusetts, it can only be sold on the farm where it’s produced. (Some states forbid the sale of raw milk entirely.)

Restrictions on sales of raw milk spring from concerns about its safety. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other government health agencies, warn that raw milk can contain harmful, even deadly, bacteria that would be killed in the pasteurization process. Fans of raw milk, however, say it contains beneficial minerals and enzymes that are lost during pasteurization, and that raw milk dairies can take adequate precautions to ensure their milk is safe. (See “Raw Milk Rules,” Aug. 5, 2010, www.valleyadvocate.com.)

The raw milk delivery bill, which was filed by state Rep. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer), would allow dairies to deliver milk to customers’ homes or hire a third party to make deliveries. It would also allow deliveries to CSAs for pick-up by established customers; in such cases, the milk wouldn’t be available for general sale to CSA members who don’t have a contractual relationship with the dairy. Dairies could also sell raw milk from their farm stands under the proposal.

The bill has strong, and bipartisan, support in the Valley, with sponsors including state Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) and Reps. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), Ellen Story (D-Amherst), Angelo Puppolo Jr. (D-Springfield), Todd Smola (R-Palmer), Don Humason (R-Westfield), Paul Mark (D-Peru), Peter Kocot (D-Northampton) and Denise Andrews (D-Orange), .

A similar bill had been filed in the last legislative session but died in the Ways and Means Committee without coming to full vote. In June, the new bill had a hearing before the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.

The proposed changes would be a boon for Massachusetts dairies, expanding the market for a product in which there’s growing consumer interest, Pitcoff said. Raw milk, he said, is “the only product farmers can’t bring to their customers.” While customers can come to farms to buy their milk, “the problem is the dairies aren’t where the customers are.” And while some raw-milk devotees will drive an hour from, say, Somerville to a farm in central Mass. to buy their milk, that’s just not feasible for many consumers. Allowing delivery of raw milk would also have environmental benefits, cutting down on the number of individual customers driving long distances to dairies, Pitcoff added.

And, he said, the change would give an important boost to Massachusetts’ dairies, whose numbers have dropped steadily in recent years. “We really need to have this happen. It’s something that’s going to help sustain small dairies.”

On Sept. 7 and 8, raw milk dairies around the state will hold open houses, as part of NOFA Mass’ annual Raw Milk Dairy Days. Participating dairies include Chase Hill Farm in Warwick, the Northfield Mount Hermon School Farm, Sidehill Farm in Hawley and Upinngil Farm in Gill. For more information, go to www.nofamass.org. —MT


Is Your Favorite Valley Business Family Friendly?

Perhaps you choose which stores to shop at based on their selection or prices. You pick restaurants for the quality of their food, maybe, or the ambience.

But does it also matter to you how the businesses you patronize treat their employees?

A new project, called the Family Friendly Business Initiative, hopes so. FFBI is the brainchild of MotherWoman, the Hadley-based advocacy group that focuses on programs and policies that support families. For the past several years, MotherWoman has been part of a coalition pushing a bill that would guarantee earned sick days to Massachusetts workers.

Right now, according to advocates, about one million workers in the state get no paid sick time at their jobs, which means they often end up going to work sick (or sending a sick child to school or daycare) to avoid losing pay—or even losing their jobs, noted Liz Friedman, MotherWoman’s program director. In addition, there are obvious public health consequences when a person serving restaurant meals or tending to babies at a daycare center shows up to work sick.

While there’s strong public support for paid sick time, “there can be a great deal of misunderstanding of this issue in the business community,” Friedman said. “Business tends to get very nervous around the idea of earned paid sick time,” especially during bad economic times. Advocates of the bill try to counter those fears by pointing out the economic benefits that comes with giving workers paid sick time: higher productivity, better employee morale, less worker turnover.

Still, resistance from many businesses presents a challenge. As Friedman puts it: “How do we identify businesses, support businesses and nurture and encourage businesses to take on family friendly policies that will not only support their employees but also support their bottom line, in terms of customer engagement?”

MotherWoman’s answer: the Family Friendly Business Initiative. The program, Friedman said, would be similar to CISA’s successful “Local Hero” program, which recognizes businesses that support local agriculture. In this case, businesses would be recognized for policies that support workers and their families.

MotherWoman recently received a grant to study similar programs already in existence, such as one organized by the Naples (Fla.) Alliance for Children. While the project is still in the early stages, Friedman said, she imagines the criteria for the family friendly designation might include businesses’ policies regarding sick time, flex time, maternity/paternity leave, health insurance coverage and support for nursing mothers to pump milk at work.

Bur first, she said, MotherWoman wants to meet with the local business community and advocacy groups to get their input. “My belief is that businesses want to do the right thing by their employees and they want to have wonderful relationships with their customers and have a community that supports their employees to live good lives,” she said. “It’s not just about the bottom-line profit, although that’s obviously got to be a huge part of how they think.” —MT


Live Sports Drives Up Cable Bills

Satellite providers and cable companies are under increasing pressure to consider offering some popular sports programming a la carte—sports programming that most providers now include in their basic cable package. Sports, particularly live sports, is the most expensive programming for cable companies to provide. And not enough viewers actual watch sports to pay for its distribution.

For people living in Western Mass., a locale between Boston and New York, two of the largest sports media markets in the country, it may seem surprising, but fewer than one in 20 television viewers will tune in to watch sports programming on any given night.

“Aside from the National Football League and the biggest games of the year in a handful of other sports,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “the TV audience for sports is tiny, amounting to about 4 percent or less of households on average, according to media-research firm Nielsen’s data provided by a major media company.” And it’s even smaller for the NBA and NHL, with only 3 percent and 2 percent of viewers respectively watching their local hoops and hockey teams.

And yet, sports stations account for more of our monthly cable bills than any other type of programming. In an average media market, notes the Journal, myriad regional sports networks and the accompanying behemoth of ESPN options amounts to nearly 20 percent of broadcast fees paid by satellite and cable companies, according to SNL Kagan, a media research firm.

In turn, companies like Bristol, Connecticut-based ESPN, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports,” pass these fees on to consumers, driving up cost for non-sports viewers and fans alike.

“ESPN’s cable channels collect more than $5 a month from each of the nearly 100 million American households that subscribe to pay-TV, more than any other channel by far,” says the current issue of The Atlantic. “That comes to about $6.5 billion in revenue, without even considering advertising. With an estimated value between $40 billion and $60 billion, ESPN is at least 20 times bigger than the New York Times Company, or five times bigger than News Corp. As a single asset, ESPN could be worth as much as all the other parts of its majority owner, the Walt Disney Company, combined.”

This is due, in part, to ESPN demanding to be included in basic cable bundles, and satellite and cable providers going along with their wish [its demand] Sports programming, after all, is one of the few remaining types of television programming whose cultural cache is intrinsically tied to its live viewership, as opposed to the on-demand offerings of companies, like Hulu and Netflix, that are challenging the traditional broadcast distribution model.

But the sports stranglehold on television programming may be coming to an end. The Tennis Channel recently launched a lawsuit against Comcast Corp., claiming the cable company unfairly restricted its business potential by keeping it out of their Basic Cable bundle, while including the Golf Channel (which is owned by Comcast) in that package, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The Tennis Channel lost the suit, but is appealing the decision.

And earlier this summer, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013, which would allow television subscribers to choose their programming channel by channel, a la carte. “According to a January 2012 Newsweek article, ESPN charges roughly $4.69 per household per month citing research from SNL Kagan,” the senator said in a press release. “By comparison, the next costliest national network, TNT, takes in $1.16 from about as many homes. So whether you watch ESPN or not, and admittedly I do all the time, all cable subscribers are forced to absorb this cost.”

McCain claims the current method of bundle programming “is unfair and wrong—especially when you consider how the regulatory deck is stacked in favor of industry and against the American consumer. This is clear when one looks at how cable prices have gone up over the last 15 years.”

There are no co-sponsors on McCain’s a la carte bill, which has yet to be voted on.

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