TOPICS > Economy

Challenging Wal-Mart

BY Kristina Nwazota  August 20, 2004 at 9:24 AM EDT

There civic activists are waging a campaign to deny the zoning permits that would allow retail behemoth Wal-Mart to move into town.

Centerville 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.

While 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.

Despite 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.

In 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.

City 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.

“I 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.”

Fisher 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.”

Residents of the community unite
Centerville 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.

According to 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.

And 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.

But Wal-Mart’s opposition is loud and highly publicized.

With 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.

In 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.

Al Norman Photo Credit: Sean DoughertyThe ‘Anti-Wal-Mart Guru’
Such 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 campaigns.

“He pops up a lot,” said one Wal-Mart spokesman. “We disagree with many of his stances.”

According 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.

His 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.

“Wal-Mart 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.”

“The 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.

His 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 Dunking Wal-Mart”.

But 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.

In 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.

“Home 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.

In a more serious tone, Norman decries what he calls these types of stores and their “sickening” corporate culture.

“Whoever 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.”

Appeasing the Opposition
Wal-Mart officials often dismiss national organizers like Norman, but they say they do pay close attention to local opposition where they have plans to expand.

Before 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 project.

“We sometimes send out a postcard or hold a neighborhood meeting to identify our supporters,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Eric Berger. “Opponents, they identify themselves.”

More 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.

“We 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 abilities.”

But, said Berger, the company does not take heed to opposition based solely on criticism of the company’s policies.

“We 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.

Berger’s fellow spokesman Keith Morris also says many of the critics are new residents who would oppose any new development.

“Typically what happens is you have people who move into a community and they almost want to close the door behind them,” Morris said.

Back 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.

“Good news for us in round one,” Fisher said. But, he said, “It will be appealed so we can’t breathe easily yet.”

If 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.

Fisher 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.