In a small town north of Salt
Lake City, Utah, a modern range war is being fought along the shores of the Great
Salt Lake. There civic activists are waging a campaign to deny the zoning permits
that would allow retail behemoth Wal-Mart to move into town. |
City, Utah, is bounded by the Wasatch Mountains to the east and the Great Salt
Lake to the west. Most of the town's 15,000 residents commute each day to Salt
Lake City and like to think of their hometown as a peaceful, bedroom community.
The area is famous for skiing in the winter but depends on its rivers and the
lake in the summer when dust from the desert rises along with the 90-degree temperatures.
there's no main industry to speak of in Centerville City, many residents like
it that way and feel good that their town has remained a restive break from Salt
Lake City some 10 miles south.
a relatively small population and a Main Street lined with local businesses like
Cutler's Cookies and Hepworth Floral, Centerville City residents have also attracted
the attention of the booming national retail industry.
January, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, approached the city with a proposed
204,000-square foot Wal-Mart Supercenter, a grocery store and traditional Wal-Mart
combined. The proposed superstore would sit on what is now a 22-acre alfalfa field,
according to Centerville City Mayor Michael Deamer, and could create more than
400 jobs and bring in $800,000 a year in revenue.
officials welcome the notion of more jobs and money, but a recent survey, conducted
by a local citizens' action group opposed to the Wal-Mart, claimed that 73 percent
of Centerville City residents are against the store's development.
think 22 acres would be ideal for a park or some other mixed use," said George
Fisher, head of Centerville Citizens First, one of two main groups working on
building an opposition to the store. "Something less obtrusive, smaller,
not a 204,000-square foot big box."
and his group worry that Wal-Mart would bring more traffic to their city, higher
crime rates, more noise and could lower the value of their homes. The group has
done mass mailings to Centerville residents, taken out full-page ads in the local
newspaper, conducted calling campaigns to organize residents against the proposal
and sold T-shirts at the local July 4th picnic -- all on volunteered time. They
tried to have a float in the July 4th parade but were denied, Fisher said. Instead,
they sold Frisbees with upside down smiley faces that asked Wal-Mart to "Fly
on out of here."
of the community unite
Citizen's First or CCF could have any town's name in front of it. The group is
one of many around the country that have organized to oppose the construction
of "big box" stores like Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot in their communities.
Sprawl Busters, an organization that monitors communities opposed to "urban
sprawl," some 221 communities have fought the opening of large-scale retail
developments in their neighborhoods and have won.
the groups, usually run by volunteers on their own time, have had an impact. In
2003, between 15 and 20 Wal-Mart projects were halted due to residents' opposition,
according to Wal-Mart spokesman Keith Morris. Morris said, though, that number
is only a tiny fraction of projects the company undertakes. By the end of 2004,
the company expects to open 220 stores.
Wal-Mart's opposition is loud and highly publicized.
names like, "Us Against the WAL," Coalition for a Better Inglewood,
and Friends of Portsmouth Township, resident activists from California to New
York and Minnesota to Texas are currently involved in battles with Wal-Mart. These
groups focus on local zoning laws, the area that gives them the most effective
way to combat large commercial developments.
addition to crowding the zoning commission offices, these activists have used
the Internet as their outlet for anti-Wal-Mart sentiments. One Web site provides
a chat room for disgruntled current and former employees and their supporters
to air their grievances.
groups are championed by one major force in the anti-urban sprawl battle, the
self-professed "anti-Wal-Mart guru," Al Norman, founder of Sprawl Busters.
By day, Norman has a full
time job working with the elderly. The rest of his time is spent running the Web
site and serving as a consultant to small groups on such issues as understanding
zoning laws, deciphering legal documents and developing anti-sprawl marketing
pops up a lot," said one Wal-Mart spokesman. "We disagree with many
of his stances."
to Norman, his opponents are often harsher, calling him crazy and accusing him
of being in it for the money. But, to small town activists fighting big stores,
Norman is a folk hero.
main argument with the retailer? A combination of the company's social, economic
and environmental practices, its ability to drive out smaller regional retailers
and the accusations that it pays workers minimum wage and denies them adequate
health care, he says.
is destroying hometown America," Norman said in an interview. "It's
destroying the unique sense of place in this country. It's making every town indistinguishable
and it's also doing a number on our economy."
methodology is that Wal-Mart is the place to be at for bargains so [shoppers]
will abandon the other stores because they don't have the money to shop at both.
This is why one-stop shopping is dangerous," he said.
efforts have turned into a cottage industry for the 57-year-old Massachusetts
native. His fees run anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000, but he says, "My
fees are a joke compared to what Wal-Mart pays their consultants." Norman
has also written two books, "The Case Against Wal-Mart" and "Slam
he remains faithful to his cause, refusing to shop in any "big box"
store. He claims to wear 15-year-old Converse sneakers and jeans purchased at
an army/navy store in Brattleboro, Vt. that sells only American-made Levi Strauss.
July, he flew to Centerville City and Sandy, Utah, Burlington, Vt. and Lockport,
N.Y. to help get campaigns against Wal-Mart underway. He doesn't distinguish between
Lowes, Wal-Mart, Home Depot or Target, though he admits Wal-Mart is the biggest
and most visible target.
Depot is just Wal-Mart with a hammer, Target is just Wal-Mart with an attitude
and Lowes is just a blue Home Depot," according to Norman.
a more serious tone, Norman decries what he calls these types of stores and their
"sickening" corporate culture.
the founder is there's an idolatry almost to the point of nausea," Norman
said. "They're all oversized in their developments; they're all extremely
aggressive in pushing back competition; and they all ought to be called China-Mart
because they're good at bringing in low-cost Chinese junk, stuff that ends up
in the landfill."
officials often dismiss national organizers like Norman, but they say they do
pay close attention to local opposition where they have plans to expand.
entering a community Wal-Mart representatives meet with city or town officials,
hold town meetings with residents who live in proximity to the proposed store
and, in some cases, send mailings to residents to gauge their interest in the
sometimes send out a postcard or hold a neighborhood meeting to identify our supporters,"
said Wal-Mart spokesman Eric Berger. "Opponents, they identify themselves."
recently, according to Berger, the company has begun commissioning architects
to design stores that are more compatible to the look of the communities they
want to enter in order to make the stores more acceptable.
have to take any opposition seriously," Berger said. "Opposition to
lights, noise -- then we sit down, reach out and make changes to the best of our
said Berger, the company does not take heed to opposition based solely on criticism
of the company's policies.
have to weed through the opposition that's legitimately site-related versus the
opposition that isn't. If it's 'Wal-Mart has horrible wages', what does that have
to do with a particular store that's opening?" he said.
fellow spokesman Keith Morris also says many of the critics are new residents
who would oppose any new development.
what happens is you have people who move into a community and they almost want
to close the door behind them," Morris said.
in Centerville City, where Wal-Mart agreed to make some concessions to the residents'
demands -- the company agreed to put a 200-foot buffer zone and four rows of trees
between the proposed store and a retirement community adjacent to it -- the local
Planning Commission declined the company's application in a deadlock 3-3 vote,
marking a small victory for members of Centerville Citizens First.
But Wal-Mart plans to appeal.
news for us in round one," Fisher said. But, he said, "It will be appealed
so we can't breathe easily yet."
Wal-Mart representatives do win their appeal, the new store could begin construction
as early as the end of 2004 and could open by next year.
says if Wal-Mart arrives, he will leave the community he has lived in all his
life, a community his great-grandfather helped settle and a place his 93-year-old
mother still calls home.
By Kristina Nwazota, Online NewsHour