Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Reflections on a $1.6 million Weekend Sacrifice

Trees and vegetation are retained or planted by savvy commercial developers as a means of increasing the value of their property.  In Durham, NC where I live, certain standards must also be met to minimize the harmful effects of impervious surface such as parking lots.Outback Closeup

It is all about safeguarding air and water quality, part of what economists measure as ecosystem services.  It is also about preserving sense of place which is crucial to leveraging economic development including tourism which in turn increases the value of commercial property.

Last weekend, on my way into a restaurant for breakfast, I noticed a crew in front of an Outback Steakhouse chopping down and grinding up 10 or more large trees between the roadway and the restaurant’s parking lot.

The trees had probably been planted when the property was first developed. From the location, it appeared this row of trees was being sacrificed to make the sign on the building more visible from a nearby highway.

All tolled, those trees represented $1.6 million dollars in ecosystem services such as absorbing, cleansing and slowly releasing storm water polluted by impervious surface.

Economists have also documented the tens of thousands of dollars that such trees each add to property values.  I wondered to myself if either the restaurant or the property owner had weighed these costs and benefits as part of the decision to butcher the trees.

Once the trees had been converted to chips and loaded for transport and disposal, the crews added insult by failing to be cover the trucks loaded with debris as required by law.  I doubt that particular driving hazard and the resulting roadside cleanup had been factored into the decision either.

Hopefully the owners will plant new trees that will grow to at least 50’ in height and canopy spread so they are able to replace the ecosystem services lost by those that were chopped down.

However, I won’t be surprised if they are replaced instead by smaller varieties that are neither native to this area, nor of the same value to the community.  The smaller varieties are not nearly as effective, if at all, at offsetting the impact of impervious surface.

Two new studies were released last year on the value of on-premise signs.  One was conducted on behalf of The Signage Foundation by researchers at the University of Cincinnati with a focus on economic value.

Another deeper analysis by researchers at Villanova University focused on the effectiveness of on-premise signs as marketing devices.

According to the first study, enhancing the visibility of on-premise signs is second only to redesign in popularly with business owners as a means of generating more revenue from a location.  Taken together, the various changes in on-premise signs result in an average increase of 12% in sales and transactions and 10% in operating profit.

So on average, making the sign for Outback Steakhouse more visible could mean an annual increase of $360,000 in sales or a tad more than 20% of the value of the trees that were sacrificed.

To put this in perspective, full-cost accounting could mean that the Outback Steakhouse in Durham would reinvest a little more than $53,000 each year from those sales for 30 years back into tree-planting that would balance impervious surface in that area.

The second study also found that on-premise signs are much more effective and two and a half times less expensive than outdoor billboard advertising.  They also outperform the use of television, radio, print or the Internet as market tools.

More revenue is critical to Outback Steakhouses, which under the newly created umbrella Bloomin’ Brands Inc. issued an IPO last year.  Now rated the #1 steakhouse in the nation, the chain was founded in Tampa, Florida in 1988 by four friends in the hospitality business.

A few months later I was recruited to jumpstart the community-destination marketing organization in Durham.  Back then, Wall Street was focused on overall company growth.

Today, Wall Street is more concerned about individual location revenue growth, leading Outback to permit managers, who also share in profits, for the first time to open for lunch.

Not opening for lunch had been one of the pillars for the company’s culture because profits for that time period are negligible and they wanted staff to have a life outside the restaurant.

Unfortunately, Wall Street hasn’t yet calibrated to full-cost, triple-bottom-line accounting and the no-lunch pillar was sacrificed for the same reason those trees were last weekend in front of the Outback in Durham.

Full-cost accounting would take into account the costs generated by impervious surface, which are pushed by developers and businesses off onto government and taxpayers.  Government tries to hold the line by requiring trees and vegetation to compensate but the ordinances are weak and not very well enforced.

Most areas where Outback Steakhouses are built are devoid of community sense of place.  I often found myself stopping for the night near one during my handful of 6,000-mile road-trips taken over the the past three years.

These commercial ghettos are new, but they nearly all look identical in design, layout and architecture as well as tenants.

It is too late to worry about the loss of sense-of-place that these areas create for communities but it is not too late to worry about requiring more of them to offset the costs of impervious surface they push off on the general public.

A recently released study for the National Forest Service by scientists David Nowak and Eric Greenfield, based in Syracuse, NY, has quantified both the amount of tree cover and the amount of impervious surface in each state of the United States as well as in urban and community areas overall.

In the urban/community areas where these cookie-cutter commercial ghettos are built, there is now 18 million acres of impervious surface, about 15% of land area, compared to the national average of 2.4%

In North Carolina, these areas have an even higher percentage of impervious surface.  Statewide the ratio of surface covered by trees compared to impervious surface has dropped to an alarming 3.3 to 1.

Even more alarming is how ineffectual local and state governments are.  Ordinances to bring balance to the marketplace are woefully inadequate and even more poorly enforced.  Pro-market enthusiasts such as me sense the playing field isn’t balanced nor inclusive of costs.

As our air and water quality and sense of place degrades, the electorate seems weary, burned out and seemingly detached.  Elected officials if they are aware or care at all, seem even more so.

All of this is to say that we are in desperate need of full-cost accounting.  Brands such as Outback are proud of their commitment to quality of life in the communities in which they are located.

What better way to demonstrate this than to dedicate that commitment to the fostering and preserving of sense of place as well as working to set an example for how businesses can incorporate full cost accounting and the triple bottom line.

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