Caveat Emptor: Can't Fight City Hall? Don't Try to Buy It

Here's a little tale of candymakers, hubris, indignation, and outside media influence.

Liberty Orchards produces Aplets & Cotlets, sugar-covered apple and apricot confections, in a town called Cashmere - 2,500 souls tucked in between Washington's Cascade Mountains. The company, founded 79 years ago, was recently considering a move to Leavenworth, a tourist town several miles away that attracts busloads of tourists each year with its pervasive Bavarian decor and schmaltz.

When Cashmere asked Liberty Orchards what it would need to stay in town, company president Greg Taylor presented Cashmere with a "plan," more like an ultimatum.

Cashmere, among other stipulations, needed to:

* Sell the company the property on which City Hall stands, so Liberty Orchards could expand.

* Print "Home of Aplets & Cotlets" on roadsigns and all its official correspondence.

* Change the name of Division Street to "Aplets Avenue," Cottage Avenue to "Cotlets Avenue," and Mission Street to "Liberty Lane" or "Liberty Orchards Avenue."

* Invest more in tourism.

"If the city acts favorably on these points, it will greatly increase the likelihood of our long-term commitment to Cashmere," Taylor wrote.

Perhaps the rationale was: If you can't fight city hall, buy it. In no time the city, weighing up to 300 jobs against autonomy and the moral high ground, had tentatively agreed to give the company the option of buying City Hall and changing several street names. The city figured it might pay for all this by selling general obligation bonds, to be paid back out of the city's general fund, and create a "Local Improvement District" to collect money from businesses.

But as time passed, local business owners got a little testy, particularly about the street-sign changes designed to get free advertising for the company along Interstate 2, where federal law prohibits billboards.

"They have become sort of the bully on the block," tavern owner Jym Reyna told The New York Times. "I wouldn't mind having the official sign out on the highway say, 'Next Exit - Cashmere, Home of the Rendezvous Tavern.' But you can't do that and be a good neighbor."

What happened next is curious. Mr. Taylor, vacationing in Hawaii, catches sight of the Oct. 6 New York Times and sees his company's story right there on the front page. His office reports that incensed customers are canceling their orders. He flies back to the heart of the Cascades and backs down.

"We are getting a lot of e-mail and regular mail that is running very negative. They are saying things like 'How could you do this to that poor town?' 'You guys are corporate bullies.' 'What you are doing is criminal,' " he told The Wenatchee World. "This is a story of a company that needed some more parking and a few highway signs. How did this happen? We have gotten trashed in the national media."

How did this happen? Wasn't he there when he signed the letter to the town council, or did evil forces possess him and make him write it against his will? It's always so easy to discount the national media as an outside influence on those rare occasions when it's on the side of righteousness - and opposed to your view.

The furor was short and sweet. Maybe all the hoo-ha won't hurt the company in the long run, now that it has done the right thing and decided to stay put. After all, how many obscure candy companies get front page coverage in national newspapers? That article could do more for Aplets & Cotlets than O.J. did for the Ford Bronco. Notoriety quickly fades to name recognition.

Maybe everyone wins, with the small town keeping its jobs and the candy company, perhaps, thriving. I hope it does. The candy it makes is really quite good.

* Tina Kelley is a Seattle-based freelance journalist.

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