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STORE WARS: When Wal-Mart Comes To Town


Citizen's Groups

Al Norman of Sprawl Busters in Wal-Mart parking lot
Al Norman, consultant, Sprawl-Busters
The proliferation of "big-box" retail chains, factory-outlet malls and warehouse-clubs across the country in the early 1990s catalyzed protests against the megastores' relentless pace of expansion. Because Wal-Mart was the biggest retailer in the world and was building the most new stores, it became the main target of community activists' protests. "Many Americans felt their communities crumbling around them. And Wal-Mart, with its size and aggressiveness, was now becoming the symbol of mindless consumerism, paved landscapes and homogenization," writes Bob Ortega, author of In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton and How Wal-Mart is Devouring America.

Al Norman was one such community organizer who ran a campaign to successfully stop Wal-Mart from locating in his hometown of Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1993. He has since made a career as a consultant helping community groups design and implement successful campaigns against megastores and other undesirable large-scale developments. When Wal-Mart approached Ashland, Virginia with plans to build a supercenter, the local citizens' group brought Norman to town to help strategize.

pink flamingos meeting sign
The Pink Flamingos met regularly
The Pink Flamingos
When Ashland got wind of the Wal-Mart project, several local businesses started petitions. Mary Leffler, who owns a local coffeehouse, and writer Phyllis Theroux drafted an invitational flyer calling concerned citizens together to meet about the Wal-Mart issue. Thirty townspeople showed up, and the Ashland-Hanover Citizens for Responsible Growth was born. A public hearing quickly followed and the group needed visuals to increase community awareness, so they hastily chose the symbol of the pink flamingo for their group, displaying them at the coffeehouse with signs such as "smart growth" and "small is beautiful." As opposition to Wal-Mart grew in Ashland, more townspeople displayed flamingos in their front yards to show their support for the citizens' group. The Pink Flamingos conducted meetings, hired a lawyer, held fundraising yard sales and informational evenings to educate the rest of the community on the issues.

pink flamingos put sold sign on town hall plaque
Pink Flamingos members in front of Ashland's Town Hall
The Flamingos' Defeat
After a 20-month battle with the Wal-Mart Corporation and the town council, the Pink Flamingos lost their fight to keep the megastore out of Ashland. Some citizens suggested that since three council members campaigned on a pro-business, laissez faire platform, the town council held fast to their belief that economics and the marketplace should determine development and growth.

Other locals suggested that the council had no choice but to accept Wal-Mart after the corporation had met all of the council's financial demands. "The majority [of the town council] believed it had no other choice after Wal-Mart returned with its request (it had pulled the request in late 1999), and the second time around, Wal-Mart answered all of the town's original objections. They felt it was the right thing to do," said Jay Pace, publisher and editor-in-chief of Ashland's Herald-Progress newspaper.

Some townspeople felt that town council members failed to do their jobs because they didn't listen to the citizens' opinions or consider them publicly. Some suggested that the council was exclusionary and "paternalistic." Ashland resident John Newell felt that the council acted as if they "knew what was best for citizens so that citizen input was not necessary."

Sprawl consultant Al Norman observed that the film STORE WARS "points up how discretionary the entire zoning process is and how it is left in the hands of poorly trained and inadequately informed local officials." He also suggested that the Pink Flamingos could have better engaged the black community and worked harder to combat the perception that they were elitist.

Ashland's former mayor TS Herbert defended the decision to accept Wal-Mart. "We have two trailer parks and some of the highest number of families on public assistance in the county. Many of those individuals are cut out of the process because they are focusing on making ends meet. With the Pink Flamingos you have a fairly affluent group of citizen activists who distort the case with a Chicken Little mentality."

Filmmaker Micha Peled felt that the group could have established better personal relationships with town council members. He also suggested that they could have educated themselves on the developer's track record to uncover some possible stumbling blocks.

Small business owner Mary Leffler suggested that had the Pink Flamingos better anticipated Wal-Mart's timing, they could have launched a PR campaign to defer the vote for a month longer, until the new town council would be in office.

"In the end, the public won, because we now have a very informed citizens' watchdog group that is still active," says town historian Rosie Shalf.

Wal-Mart plans to break ground in July 2001.

Just Say No
As of March 2002, 164 communities have fought to keep behemoth retailers out of their towns. The Sprawl-Busters Web site has a list of places across the country and in Canada where megastores have been rejected (at least once) or have withdrawn.

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