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Domino’s Pizza will fix $5,000 worth of Duluth’s potholes

Is Duluth's deal with Domino's a Faustian bargain?

Is Duluth's deal with Domino's a Faustian bargain? Getty Images/iStockphoto

All hail our new corporate overlords: Domino’s Pizza.

The billionaire pizza chain's latest publicity stunt involves an unexpected bit of civil engineering: filling $5,000 worth of potholes for city governments. Plenty of cities have already taken Domino’s up on it, and have already allowed PR people to take photos of freshly filled potholes sprayed with chalk renderings of the Domino’s logo.

Last week, the pizza behemoth set its sights on Duluth. It then fell to the city council to accept or reject $5,000 in pizza-fueled pothole repair at their Monday night meeting. They accepted, unanimously, as part of the evening’s consent agenda -- no debate or discussion required.

The Duluth City Council members didn’t respond to interview requests, but city managers from across the nation have taken pains to explain why they accepted pizza money to patch up their roads. The biggest reason, as described in Milford, Delaware City Manager Eric Norenberg’s column in the Washington Post, is simply because the city would rather accept free money than ask for it from taxpayers.

“The program has elicited some complaints about what it means that a pizza chain is funding basic government projects,” he wrote. But Milford’s general fund is just over $9 million, and more than half of it goes to fund its police department. Its annual outlay for street repairs is just $30,000. Why not accept a handsome sum in exchange for a few photo ops?

“Taking $5,000 from a pizza chain to repair our roads was not a difficult decision,” he wrote.

In Duluth’s case, the extra $5,000 would be a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to what it actually needs. The city spends about $1.5 million on maintenance a year, and it would have to spend around $25 million annually to keep up with its 450 miles of roads, according to the Duluth News Tribune. About 55 percent of them were listed in “critical condition” in a 2015 survey.

On Thursday, City Manager Keith Hamre told the city council -- a little wistfully -- that he honestly would have preferred something more to the tune of $1.1 million in pizza money.

The city’s residents approved a 0.5 percent transportation sales tax referendum last year that would have generated $7 million every year to play catch-up on repairs -- if it hadn’t stalled in the legislature last spring. Meanwhile, drivers trundle along, navigating broken streets and praying the next unexpected thud doesn’t take out an axle.

If the success of this pizza pothole campaign tells us anything, it’s that America’s infrastructure is woefully underfunded. Being thrown a bone of any size from the nearest pizza delivery giant is often too tempting to pass up.

University of Toronto legal studies professor Mariana Valverde is taking this ad campaign with a hearty slice of skepticism. She knows what life was like 100 years ago, before American cities took ownership of its roads and sidewalks: “A disaster,” she told Eater. Well-kept roads and sidewalks existed only where property owners cared to pay for them.

If this kind of pothole stunt became commonplace, she said -- or if Starbucks starts paying for sidewalks, or Taco Bell starts paying for street lights -- it could lead to a future in which you could have a Domino’s pizza shop and nice roads… or you could have neither.