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CHAINED HEAT: These are dark days for independent businesses. Locally owned bookstores are nearly extinct (although some local bibliophiles are valiantly trying to reverse the trend with a new bookstore, Reader's Oasis, located at 3400 E. Speedway Blvd., No. 114). Chain restaurants are popping up on every street corner and new strip malls feature national franchises rather than ambitious locals trying to make a go in the business world.

The chains are now rattling in the Catalina Foothills at Swan Road and Sunrise Drive, where Blockbuster Video is moving in across the street from Director's Chair Video.

Owners Catherine and Richard Girouard are justifiably worried. The couple put their longtime love of movies to work for them when they opened Director's Chair in 1987. In the ensuing decade-plus, they've built up an eclectic collection of more than 10,000 film titles.

But earlier this month, the couple's worst fear came true when Blockbuster set up shop.

"It feels like hell," says Catherine.

Blockbuster has a legendary reputation for offering little beyond mainstream material--occasionally edited to remove objectionable scenes. Now the megacorp is unleashing a new business model to squash what few independent video businesses still exist around the country: a smaller store that carries new releases, DVDs and video games. So while there may be 100 copies of crap about sappy romance, diabolical killers, exploding fireballs and smart sharks, you can bet there won't be a Russ Meyer section. It's tough enough to find some independent or foreign films at the big Blockbuster outlets, but this new concept guarantees that there won't be space on the shelves for much alternative cinema.

That's a sharp difference to Director's Chair Video, which carries all manner of offbeat films and cult favorites that don't have major studio backing.

"We've specialized in foreign and domestic ever since we've been here," Catherine says.

But now they're facing formidable competition. Blockbuster has an edge over independent stores because the company is large enough to make revenue-sharing deals with studios and run stores at a loss if necessary until homegrown companies are toast.

"We don't have the ability to do that," says Catherine. "We can't run in the red and survive, whereas Blockbuster can run a given store in the red infinitely in order to put someone out of business."

Catherine estimates that stores that face a dreaded chain outlet lose from 50 to 70 percent of their business in the first year. "That's more than most independents can handle," she notes grimly. "The survival rate for stores with a Blockbuster going in across the street is zero."

The couple is doing all it can to build customer loyalty. They have a record of generosity with the local school district. They feature lower prices than Blockbuster--a 10-rental punch card costs $21--and they're offering free rental of children's films on Monday and Tuesday nights.

This weekend, the owners are getting a boost from the Young Uprising Radicals, a group of Catalina Foothills High School extremists who will be picketing outside the new Blockbuster to encourage a boycott of the chain. The protest rally begins at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 2.

"In this area, the choice that people make really is going to make a difference," Catherine says.


KITTY SQUAWK: Maeveen Behan, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's favorite hatchet woman, has done it again. Behan, who is called Nurse Ratchet by conservationists who have been subject to her odd brand of self-righteous psychological intimidation, told Defenders of Wildlife staffer Craig Miller that anyone seriously considering protecting the endangered jaguar in the Altar Valley was "seriously out of touch with reality."

Seems that Recon, the county's consultant, had recommended that the jaguar be dropped from the list of "species of concern" in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

That could mean legal challenges ahead for the plan, as the wily cats make their way back into Arizona because of destruction of their habitat in Sonora.

The real question is, when is Huckelberry going to realize that it's himself and Behan that are "seriously out of touch with reality"? The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan has to be better than business-as-usual in corrupt, pro-development Pima County. If they whittle down the much-vaunted conservation plan into little more than a subsidy for poltically connected Altar Valley ranchers, they may get a quick dose of reality.

We're betting they won't figure it out until the Center for Biological Diversity sues them--and wins.


ON THE REBOUND: Democrat Byron Howard is bouncing back from losing the race for the District 1 seat on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Howard, a local political consultant who was defeated by Republican Ann Day earlier this month, has landed a job working as an aide to Councilwoman Shirley Scott.

Howard will likely bring some fresh political savvy to the Ward 4 office--something we hear has been lacking since former aide John Macko quit under pressure after media reports about a city investigation that allegedly determined Macko had dissed Jews, Mexicans and gays. Macko has denied the allegations and is now seeking to hit the jackpot with a $1.9 million lawsuit against the city, claiming the leaked report caused him mental duress that required medical treatment.


FOR SHAME: On the same day that voters in central and centrist Distict 13 elevated Democratic state Rep. Andy Nichols to the state Senate in a tight race over Republican Rep. Kathleen Dunbar, Nichols' wife, Ann, was back in familiar territory. She stood before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency arguing that killer Donald Miller should not be executed.

Ann Nichols is a longtime and celebrated death penalty abolitionist. She also is an Arizona State University professor who trains social workers and those who endeavor to change society. She made news in late 1998 and again early this year for the steamy, if separated by bars, relationship she had with death row inmate Anthony Chaney. The letters and tapes she sent Chaney, who killed a doctor who served as a reserve Coconino County sheriff's deptuy, would make the pros at the 900 numbers blush.

This month, Ann Nichols, captured on local television, told the clemency board she was "ashamed" to be an Arizonan because of the state's executions, which resumed in 1992. Nevertheless, killer Miller waived his available appeals and was executed on November 8.

There is no question that Ann Nichols is a devoted, earnest worker in the fight against the death penalty. However, if her shame is so great, she and Andy might kick back their hefty but apparently soiled state salaries. Andy alone, besides his $24,000-a-year legislative pay, also gets $139,035 for his work as a professor of family and community medicine and public health at the University of Arizona. That's not exactly shameful compensation.


WHITHER AIMS? Is State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan backing away from the AIMS test, the high school graduation exam that's been a centerpiece of her education reforms?

Two days before Thanksgiving, Keegan made still another pronouncement on the controversial test that so far has proved too darn hard for Arizona students to pass. Tossing responsibility back to the schools, Keegan declared she's going to make them come up with a reasonable timeline for their foot-dragging students to pass it. She had harsh words for the schools, whom she blames for not getting the kids through AIMS. "We should not punish students for what adults have failed to do," she said in a terse statement.

Keegan did more than just back away from the current deadline, which would require today's high school juniors to pass reading and writing by the time they graduate in May 2002. (The current freshmen, Class of 2004, will be the first to have to pass the math test.) She also proposed an easier form of the writing test, "adding a second avenue for students to 'pass' the writing portion," as she put it.

Sounds like she's leaving open the possibility of a two-track writing test, no doubt inspired by the dismal scores the hapless Class of 2002 racked up on writing. Fully 66 percent of them failed the writing test last spring when they took it as sophomores, and it's unlikely a large number of them could polish up their sentences enough in time to graduate.

So far, AIMS has been pretty much a bust, racked by complaints that it doesn't match the curriculum, and even bedeviled by a newspaper lawsuit alleging that it was a public document Keegan and company were unlawfully keeping under wraps. The first test, given in spring 1999 as a trial run to sophomores who would be graduating in 2001, yielded breathtaking failures across the test: 89 percent failed math, 70 percent failed writing, 39 percent failed reading. At least this gang didn't need it to graduate.

The next year's scores, which were supposed to count, were marginally better. The sophomores who took it in spring 2000 racked up failure rates of 83 percent on math, 66 percent on writing and 32 percent on reading. Then, last summer, yielding to criticism that the math test was more like a college admissions test than an assessment of high-school skills, Keegan agreed to delay the math test, and to make it easier.

So what do we have now? A math test made easier, a writing test that's apparently about to get easier and a timeline that's up in the air. It could be that Keegan will just wash her hands of the whole thing. She's already been lionized by educational conservatives around the country, who like not just her AIMS test but her state's burgeoning collection of charter schools. If her man George W. gets into the White House, there could just be a big job in the federal education department awaiting Keegan. The other Republican George W., columnist George Will, proposed her for Education Secretary months ago.

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