Here are some photos of the HopMonk Tavern in Novato, California in the Wine County just north of San Francisco. The food here is great. The atmosphere is terrific. When you’re inside the building or out on the enclosed patio it’s exactly what you’d want or expect from this part of the world. But let’s pull out a bit for a little context.
Things look a little different now, don’t they? This looks more like New Jersey or one of the mediocre parts of Los Angeles than a premier rural tourist destination.
The Vintage Oaks shopping center is a fine place. It’s conveniently located next to an interstate highway, it has ample free parking, and the quality of the retail establishments is top notch. But there’s a gap between the superficial iconography of the place and the reality of what Vintage Oaks really is.
The Old Navy store looks like a Victorian farmhouse, the Designer Shoe Warehouse is in a faux barn, and the ATM machine is tucked into an ersatz grain silo. There’s clearly a desire for the place to feel like the Wine Country.
But the reality is that Vintage Oaks is a giant slab of asphalt and concrete that serves as a sales tax generating machine. The town of Novato, as wealthy as many of its Marin County residents may be, is just another cash strapped municipality desperate for tax revenue to fund basic services.
Property taxes from homes don’t come anywhere close to covering the cost of running the town. Water and sewer lines, pumping stations, pavement, police and fire protection, public schools, senior centers… Like most communities in Marin County Novato is fiercely anti-growth and has no interest in new development. But it can’t fund its own local services.
Half of Novato’s budget already goes to fund its police department – and that percentage keeps rising and squeezing out other services. Novato isn’t unique in this regard. This is true of most local governments all across the country. So Vintage Oaks was approved and installed as a cash point to help subsidize the town.
For all the sturm and drang that proposed new development incites in Marin County, retail centers like this tend to get approved. The sales tax argument is pitted against the question, “Do you want municipal services radically cut, or do you want a collection of new user fees for city services?” Even rich tree huggers quietly opt for the shopping mall under the circumstances.
You’ll also notice that the highway segregates Vintage Oaks and its associated traffic and parking from the town itself which helps defuse some of the NIMBY opposition. The town sacrifices a little piece of its periphery, but gets the cash it needs. Meanwhile, the residential subdivisions remain unscathed.
There are trade offs. Sales tax is a volatile source of income that rises and falls in unpredictable ways. Sales tend to be lowest during a recession at exactly the time when the town needs money the most. The historic downtown of Novato has seen its mom and pop businesses decimated. Who can compete with Target, Costco, and the national chains? People are forced to drive everywhere whether they want to or not. And sooner or later the retail center will age and decline. But there you have it – a rural paradise in the bulk warehouse aisle.