In our issue dated Aug. 19 of this year, Stephen Kinzer wrote a stirring essay about President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Provincetown in the summer of 1907 to lay the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument.
“Roosevelt used his visit here to deliver an amazing warning against the rise of ‘predatory capitalists’ and ‘the wealth which works iniquity,’ ” Kinzer wrote. “It was in this speech that he used one of his most famous phrases: ‘malefactors of great wealth.’
“…By the time he came to Provincetown,” Kinzer went on, “he had adopted a new identity: the trust-buster. It was a period when businesses were all but unregulated and paid little tax, greedy tycoons corrupted the government, and immense wealth was concentrated in a few hands — in other words, a period much like our own.”
I couldn’t help being reminded of Roosevelt’s Provincetown speech and his enormous popularity as the “trust-buster” when I read Cam Blair’s report this week on Eastham’s plans to develop the old T-Time driving range property on Route 6 for the benefit of the community. The Eastham Select Board has unanimously endorsed the idea of creating a variety of uses there, including housing for people of diverse income levels, a community center, and affordable space for small businesses.
The one thing that can’t happen at the T-Time property, which the town bought from the Stop & Shop Company for $1.6 million, is any kind of food store. That’s because, before selling it, Stop & Shop placed a 99-year deed restriction on the 11-acre parcel. That means that for the rest of the 21st century there can be no supermarket there, no grocery store, no butcher shop, no fish market, no sandwich shop, no fruit stand, no farmers’ market — no operation of any kind that sells “food or food products for off-premises consumption (whether by humans or animals).”
The purpose of the deed restriction is simple: to prevent that large and highly accessible property from being used to compete in any way with Stop & Shop’s existing stores in Orleans and Provincetown — and to strengthen the company’s stranglehold on the supermarket business on the Outer Cape.
This is restraint of trade in its most blatant form. It should be and most likely is illegal. It is exactly what President Roosevelt — a Republican, by the way — was talking about when he told his Provincetown audience, “What wonder that gigantic corporations employ their enormous wealth and the highest legal talent to strain the laws to their upmost!”
But anti-trust laws have gone almost entirely unenforced in the U.S. for the last 40 years, since the election of Ronald Reagan. Stop & Shop is hardly the only culprit. Consolidation, vertical integration, and the crushing of competition seem to have become the holy grail of many corporations — a definition of success born of insecurity and guaranteeing mediocrity.
It’s time for that to change. The predatory practices of the high-tech industry have reawakened interest in long-dormant anti-trust laws. Lawyers of the narrowland unite!