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Am I Crazy, or Is America Crazy?   (July 16, 2007)

I went camping this weekend, and on the way through California's Central Valley (our destination being a remote section of the Sierra Nevada) I passed shopping center after shopping center in the last stages of construction. I managed to snap a photo of one outlet I thought summed up the "healthy consumer demand" and "strong retail sector" I keep reading about:

Traveling north of Fresno, we passed block after block after block of new/under construction retail--the new "premiere" shopping destination for Fresno called River Park. Fresno is a major population center, with about 440,000 residents in the city and surrounding suburbs. Also note that its per capita income is $15,010, rather solidly in the lower-middle of California cities. The average per capita income in California is $22,000.

Fresno has a long and proud history, and I am not suggesting it doesn't deserve a square mile or two of premiere retail heaven. What I am questioning is whether any moderate-sized metropolitan area of about 400,000 moderate-income residents can support the largest concentration of retail outlets in the known world.

Yes, I am not kidding. River Park stretches on for city block after block, with more being built across the street and around the corner. Stores of particular note: Bar-Be-Que World and Vitamin Superstore. Both were huge. Need another $1,000 6-foot long BBQ grill? Of course you could buy one at Costo, Wal-Mart, Home Depot or a million other places, but don't you want to shop at a superstore that's ALL BBQ?

Ditto for vitamins. Sure, you can buy them discounted over the Internet, but why not drive across town for the on-hand selection which duplicates the aisles of Walgreens, Longs, Rite-Aid and thousands of other outlets?

I think you get my drift. There is no way that Fresno can support this concentration of retail outlets. And this is just north of Fresno; of course new retail is going up south, west and east of Fresno, too.

On the way into the suburbs, we passed one vast gated community after another with names like "Opus One" in fancy script by the heavy security gate. Opus One? Excuse me, Maestro, where do you live? "Why, M'sieur, of course I reside in Opus One, in a quaint, charming little six-bedroom McMansion."

Lest you think I am exaggerating, real estate development billboard after billboard pronounced "up to six bedrooms." Now you may have a real passel of kids, say, five or six, or have your folks and an aunt living with you, and need six bedrooms; but I suspect the demographic of buyers does not include many 7-person families.

Apparently American home builders and developers haven't heard that the boom is over because large pieces of California's enormous Central Valley are nothing more than one vast sprawling construction site.

Take the pleasant little town of Patterson. You pass it on I-5, deep in farm country, far from any urban source of employment. America's big national home builders are going nuts in Patterson, throwing up hundreds upon hundreds of new houses. This is a town of 20,000 people, folks, a small rural farm-based-economy town with a charming Main Street and few major employers. Can such a town absorb hundreds of new homes per year?

It seems unlikely, to say the least. Retirees? No slam on Patterson, but it's not near recreation, or major hospitals or the other things retirees presumably seek access to. Commuters? No way. It's several hours to any major concentration of jobs.

As I drove through this bizarre alternative-world of frenzied construction and the paving over of some of the best soil on the planet for soul-less, strikingly ugly McMansions and stucco boxes crammed cheek-by-jowl (so that 4-foot sideyard of dead weeds renders each a "single family dwelling") I had to wonder if I was insane, and I've missed the reality, which is the lending/building boom is in fact sustainable for decades to come, or if America is insane--insane to pave over beautiful, irreplacable farmland with crappy, poorly designed and built boxes doomed to be ghost towns in a few years, insane to build and sell these lifeless faux-communities far from any nourishment and insane to buy such impossible-to-cool-except-with-gargantuan-expenditures-of-fossil-fuels houses in the middle of what is essentially a desert fed by the largest artificial river system in the world.

I'll continue looking at "Who's Insane?" as the week progresses.

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