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STORE WARS: When Wal-Mart Comes To Town


Sprawl - dispersed development outside of compact urban and village centers along highways and in rural countryside - Vermont Forum on Sprawl urban strip mall

Sprawl has become an increasing concern for American communities. Due to poorly planned regional development, sprawl eats up prime agricultural land and open space, increases traffic and air pollution, drives up taxes and contributes to overpopulation.

Before World War II, the downtown district was a community's primary commercial hub. Not only did most people shop at local businesses downtown, but the presence of offices, banks and libraries guaranteed traffic in the town center. Downtown also served as an important part of an area's social life. On weekends, folks would meet to window shop, eat at restaurants, and go to the movies.

gas station
Vermont suburbs
The creation of the interstate highway system and growth of suburban communities has transformed the way Americans live and work. With improved transportation, people are able to travel longer distances to work or shop. As a result, many downtown retailers have either gone out of business or have moved to the shopping mall. As customers dwindled, property values and sales tax revenues dropped. Historic buildings were neglected and storefronts boarded up, reinforcing the perception that nothing was happening downtown.

Another main factor leading to sprawl is the fact that every municipality is autonomous. This independence denies towns the ability to plan effectively in collaboration with neighboring towns. The absence of regional planning authorities enables Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers to threaten towns that if they will not grant the company construction permits, the retailer will approach the next town or build on county land. If the retailer builds in the next town over, locally owned businesses will still be negatively impacted, and yet the town won't even benefit from the tax revenues granted by the megastore.

Sprawling development on the outskirts of towns and cities has caused a number of other unexpected problems for rural, suburban and urban communities, including:
  • the loss of open space and unique natural areas
  • overdependence on the automobile and superhighways
  • the impact of traffic on air quality standards
  • the threat to water quality and acquifers
  • the expense of costly new infrastructure
  • the homogenization of rural landscapes
  • the reduction of wildlife habitat
  • the mismanagement of stormwater and sewage
  • the deterioration of historic commercial centers
Source: Al Norman, Sprawl-Busters

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