Saturday, September 23, 2006

Small town propaganda

A moving Target

Davis is a fairly small town near Sacramento, the state capital of California. Its major claim to fame is a large campus of the University of California, which is probably all that saves it from being nothing more than a bedroom community for civil servants. I last mentioned Davis when I wrote about a trip to the university last spring to attend a symposium on classroom-based research. There were rewarding presentations on both mathematics instruction and biology (see Darwin in Davis).

I have many friends and colleagues with degrees from UC Davis. Yesterday I enjoyed having dinner with a family member who is pursuing his studies there. We ended up spending some time discussing the latest controversy in small town politics. The Target Corporation has proposed one of their “big box” stores for Davis and the city council punted the decision to the voters in the form of a ballot proposition, Measure K in the November general election.

The anti-Target group in Davis argues that the presence of such a large store in their town will violate the slow-growth general plan that is supposed to guide local development. In addition to setting up a website,, the opponents put out a mailer that my relative and I found quite eye-catching. Is the Target store going to carve a giant chunk out of downtown Davis if the voters approve Measure K on November 7? The image on the flier was daunting:

It has often been argued that big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target can destroy a city's downtown business by drawing commerce away from the central district. The No on K flier made it seem as though Target was preparing to be the central district—or at least six city blocks of it! Wow!

We had a second piece of campaign literature that added to the confusion. This one was a six-page tabloid titled On Target and published by Davis CARES, a pro-Target group that had gone to the trouble to work up a telling acronym by naming themselves Citizen Activists for Responsible, Effective Solutions. I'm impressed. The group is sponsored by Target Corporation and has its own website urging a yes vote on K. The Davis CARES tabloid carried a rather different map of the proposed development:

Okay, the shapes in the two drawings are similar, but the street names are almost completely disjoint. Only Second Street appears in both maps. The lettered streets (C through G) of the anti-K map are nowhere to be found. What's going on?

I punched up Google Maps and zoomed in on Davis. As you can see, the lettered streets of Davis's downtown are down in the lower-left corner of the map, where I put a B to label the location shown in the anti-K illustration. Second Street runs along the south edge of the town all the way to the east edge of the map, where it meets a major road called Mace Boulevard. The point labeled A is the actual proposed location of the Target development. It's a couple of miles from downtown.

So what, exactly, is going on? I have no idea if the anti-K forces have been taken to task for their confusing drawing, but I can confidently predict their defense: “We were just trying to show how big the proposed development would be relative to downtown (even though nothing on the flier explains this). We had no idea people would think that Target wants to bulldoze most of the central city!”

I'm sure it was all an innocent mistake. An oversight, as it were.

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