Is your gas gauge sinking toward empty?  A letter in today’s paper urges you to avoid ARCO gas stations because the parent company is BP.  Some people are still boycotting Exxon, 21 years after the big spill in Alaska.

The temptation to make a statement, to vote with our dollars is strong. The trouble is those messages aren’t always delivered to the right spot.

Most gas stations don’t belong to the big oil companies; they’re franchises. They buy fuel from BP or Exxon or Chevron. They benefit from corporate marketing campaigns (and probably pay fees for that, too). But the corner ARCO or BP station very well may belong to someone who lives (and shops) nearby, that quintessential local businessperson we’re routinely urged to support over the national chains, the guy whose profits stay here.

So the question is a little more complicated.

We’re on the cusp of another local vs. national debate in Sonoma County when Wal-Mart goes in front of the Rohnert Park City Council for its expansion plan.

Count on hearing appeals to support the local merchant. And I’m not going to use this space to suggest doing otherwise. My first impulse is to spend my dollars in local businesses. But I’m not sure the go-local argument stands up to close scrutiny.

Doesn’t anyone in this community own shares in a big chain store like Lowe’s or Home Depot? Don’t they collect dividends and, potentially, capital gains that can be spent here, or banked here and loaned for local purposes?

Are none of the profits earned by local businesses invested in companies that aren’t based here, or spent on goods and services from outside the community? Is that so much different from a national chain that takes profits out of the community after making its payroll and other expenses, including local taxes?

It’s not so straightforward. I’ll continue to support local merchants, but the reasons are more cultural than economic.

— Jim Sweeney