Against 'big boxes' at the edge of town

Englendora, Calif., the issue created a local civil war, pitting the north against the south side and sowing divisions that "will take a long time to heal," says Mayor Larry Glenn.

In picturesque Rockland, Maine, the same issue has stirred so much tension that artist Debby Atwell has called for a community day of prayer and fasting to determine the right course of action.

For a growing number of communities across America, the hot-button issue of the day, and one of rare ferocity, is "big box" retailing, where people shop with dollies at stores so large they could double as airplane hangars.

Social historian Edward Ayers sees the expanding controversy as a sign of restiveness throughout America about preserving identity in a fast-changing world. The spread of Wal-Marts, Home Depots, and other super-size chain stores across the landscape, says Mr. Ayers, "is a symbol of standardization and a loss of heart" for many opponents.

At a more practical level, these battles are intense, say analysts, because they hit trigger points of local politics: traffic, land use, and consumer choice.

Indeed, there is a huge paradox in the issue. Wal-Mart, the poster child in this battle, is spreading because people like to shop there - 100 million Americans go through its doors each week.

And Ayers, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, points out that in many cases, the battle has certain class overlays, with those struggling to make ends meet happy to have the convenience and lower prices of big-box chains.

Critical masses

Yet opposition is growing because many communities have become skeptical about the larger economic and quality-of-life impact of these mass retailers. And organized and powerful opponents - like the United Food & Commercial Workers Union and more-traditional retail grocers - are increasingly joining the fray.

"The opposition typically forms around two main issues," says Al Norman, author of "Slam Dunking Wal-Mart." "First is the quality of life in small communities, and second is whether these businesses really represent economic development or just economic displacement."

Mr. Norman says that, in most towns, big boxes "cannibalize" local businesses and don't net many new jobs or taxes.

Last year, California became the most dramatic example of the power of the antimass-retailer movement when state legislators rushed through a law that would have essentially banned stores larger than 100,000 square feet that devote 15 percent or more of that space to grocery goods.

The bill was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis as "anticompetition and anticonsumer," but California may revisit the issue this year. Still, the real center of the battle is expected to be at the local level nationwide.

As the country's largest private employer and one that is not unionized, Wal-Mart is wearing a bull's-eye for organized labor, which has become more active in moves to stop the company's expansion.

"Our position is that Wal-Mart is not a responsible employer or a responsible member of the community," says Greg Denier of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union.

The UFCW last month won the first-ever union election against Wal-Mart. Meat cutters in Wal-Mart's supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas, voted to join the union.

Other union elections are being sought in Texas and Florida. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has announced a plan to eliminate meat-cutting departments at 180 stores.

For many communities, the issue becomes one of hard-core economics. In Glendora, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, the City Council deadlocked over a proposed new Wal-Mart supercenter, which was then put before voters on March 7. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters gave Wal-Mart the green light. "It'll give us a lot of new sales taxes, and it'll help better our community," says Mayor Glenn, a supporter.

But opening a new store for mass retailers is clearly much tougher than it used to be, and that, in the end, say some opponents, may well slow big-box expansion.

Growth is coming

In Clemson, S.C., a group called Citizens for Responsible Growth is fighting a new 204,000-square-foot Wal-Mart. To offer some context for how big that is for Clemson, Jim Witte, a lead opponent, says all the town's retail space combined totals about 400,000 square feet.

"We know growth is coming, but we don't want this type of growth," says Mr. Witte. "We want growth that is appropriate in scale for a community like us."

In each community, the issues have their own cast. Bill Wonderlin, a pharmacologist at West Virginia University, is leading the opposition to a new Wal-Mart in Morgantown. He's irritated that the university played a pivotal role in the proposed development. The land was given to the university foundation, which sold it to a developer, which sold it to Wal-Mart.

court to put a referendum before voters that would roll back restrictions on big-box developments. And in Nevada's Clark County, the company is also seeking to overturn new restrictions on Wal-Mart-style development with a ballot initiative.

Norman says he doesn't keep a tally of wins and losses, but says the number of communities in which new mass-retail outlets trigger heated disputes is rising dramatically. "I know we're slowing them down," he says.

For its part, Wal-Mart wants to add 150 new supercenters this year. But spokeswoman Daphne Davis acknowledges that part of the opposition is based on legitimate local concerns. "We've learned a lot through all this," says Ms. Davis.

But whatever concessions Wal-Mart makes in some communities - ranging from less-bright lighting to new soccer fields for the host town - it probably cannot escape the resentment some locals feel toward any outsider of its size.

Locals like Debby Atwell of Rockland, who says: "It's like an invasion. We have a distinguished and proud heritage, and we're trying to protect it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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