Stopping the Big Boxes

Eighty-six communities across the US have stopped Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and other big box retailers from locating in their town. Here’s how they did it.
Markus Spiske Stopping bog boxes.jpg

Image by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

From Vermont to Florida, South Carolina to California, Idaho to Iowa, 86 communities across America have stopped big box retailers – Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and the like – from locating in their towns.

But why ever would anyone want to do that? In his autobiography, Wal-Mart CEO Sam Walton says that Wal-Mart would never go to a town that didn't want it. He says there are plenty of places just pining for the low-priced mountains of stuff that Wal-Mart offers. Who could object to getting in a small town the one-stop convenience and deep discounts city folks get to enjoy?

In Gig Harbor, Washington, the answer is: the 14,000 people who signed an anti-Wal-Mart petition, that's who. If you ask small town folks like those in Gig Harbor (which the big box guys never seem to do), lots of them don't think an enormous concrete cube surrounded by acres of asphalt is much of an aesthetic addition.

But, you say, that's a small price to pay. You only suffer the aesthetic affront as you drive in and out of town. True enough, except, once Wal-Mart has been in town for a few years, you'll suffer the aesthetic affront of driving through a downtown that's filled with empty buildings where the pharmacy, dry-goods, variety, and hardware stores that it drove out of business used to be. Because Wal-Mart, according to the late Mr. Walton, comes to town to compete. Walton talks about Wal-Mart's policy of saturating regions, and in areas where it's achieved saturation, it's now taking the next step – opening regional “Superstores,” which offer groceries, auto repair, and other services, and closing their smaller stores in surrounding towns.

So, once Wal-Mart has changed you to a one-store town, you may get lucky and become the location of the new Superstore for your area. Or you may be like a growing number of little towns, which, after loyally pumping their retail dollars into Wal-Mart, discover that the town 30 miles down the road got the Superstore, and they get an empty big box on the edge of town to go with all the empty stores where downtown used to be. According to Sprawl-Busters, an anti-big-box organization run by Al Norman, there are now nearly 200 dead Wal-Mart discount stores. But, hey, Wal-Mart makes your retail dollar go further, and Wal-Mart brings jobs to town. Or does it

If you're tempted by those low, low prices, consider how much you will really save. Sam Walton thought Wal-Mart's nay-sayers were just living in the past, trying to treat small-town merchants “like they were whales or whooping cranes or something that has the right to be protected.” But when you spend a dollar at a Wal-Mart, that dollar is on its way to the Bentonville, Arkansas, corporate headquarters the next day. When you spend that dollar at a local store, it gets deposited in a local bank, and spent again in the community a couple more times. That generates local taxes, which are spent on local needs. It produces larger reserves for local banks, who are often the engines of local prosperity.

All those jobs Wal-Mart creates? For one thing, most of them aren't anyone's idea of prosperity. And they aren't new jobs. Wal-Mart doesn't bring anything to a community that wasn't already there; it takes its business from the existing retailers. There may be a moment when there are more jobs in town, but that lasts only until the small stores begin to close. Since Wal-Mart is replacing full-service stores with its self-service model, the net result to a community is a loss of jobs, about 1.5 for every Wal-Mart employee, according to Sprawl-Busters.

Keeping the corporate juggernaut out

What can you do if Wal-Mart, or one of the other big boxes targets your town? Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer, it's worth billions, and it's not shy about using a bunch of that money to build where it wants to. Can real people stop a corporate juggernaut? They can, and they have.

The veterans of the big-box battles agree that the keys to winning are organization and persistence, the same tools that Wal-Mart uses. Al Norman led one of the first successful anti-Wal-Mart campaigns in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He says, “Citizens should understand that this is just like a political campaign. You have to work until the campaign is over. It requires good organization, delegation of labor, and constant attention.”

Although that may sound daunting, it's not, because all battles against big box retailers are local battles. You and your neighbors don't have to convince the governor. Your job is to educate the mayor, the city council, and the planning commission. Those are all people from your town, and they're all people who know that your vote counts.

Your biggest advantage is that once a few people start questioning the wisdom of having a big box locate in your town, communities rally. Take a page from Sam Walton's book. He fondly remembers the early days of Wal-Mart, when they opened their stores with circus-like fanfare. Do the same in your town, but for the opposite reason. The Peninsula Neighborhood Association (PNA) stopped Wal-Mart from building in Gig Harbor, population 7,000, in part through home-town style fundraisers – bake sales, rummage sales, dances, auctions. They had floats in local parades. “It was a community-building process. We came together for a good reason, and it was fun,” says PNA's Becca Townsend.

The PNA took its 14,000 petition signatures, copied them onto red paper and, when Wal-Mart representatives came to town for a Planning Commission hearing, “rolled out the red carpet.”

Townsend emphasizes two points for building community support: communication and empowerment. She believes it's critical to have a stable, accessible place for people to get information. The PNA already had an office when their Wal-Mart fight began. For a new organization, you need no more than a person with a phone and the willingness to answer calls.

The most important information to get out is, “It's not a done deal. You can make a difference,” Townsend says.

Once you've got community support, use it. “Real people fight corporate giant” is good copy. Make sure your local media know who you are and what you're doing.

Most importantly, use public support for what it is: political power. People can hate the idea of a big box in your town all they want, but the yea or nay will come from local politicians. Pack any hearings on zoning requests or public funding. Make sure your voice is heard.

Al Norman says you will need legal counsel. Zoning matters are legal proceedings; trying to learn procedure on the fly is asking for trouble. The PNA found that once it hired a few experts, it had developers, engineers, professors, and other professionals stepping forward to volunteer their time.

Wal-Mart likes to sneak into town. You won't see rezoning applications for Wal-Mart; you'll see a real-estate developer seeking rezoning for an unnamed client. Norman says, “By the time Wal-Mart is visible, it's usually been around for months.” Sometimes, as in Ithaca, NY, it's been around getting land rezoned without required public hearings.

The best way to keep big box retail out of your community is to zone it out before it thinks about coming. Norman points out that most comprehensive plans and zoning regulations were enacted when big box retailing was but a gleam in Sam Walton's eye. No one thought of setting size limits or requiring traffic and environmental studies when the biggest retail establishment anyone could think of was a supermarket. Norman suggests that citizens review their town's comprehensive plan and work on changing it before the big box begins shopping for land.

If you think you don't need to do that because your town's too small to be a target, consider this: Wal-Mart thought it would be a good idea to put up a 155,000 square foot store in Tijeras, New Mexico, population 320. If you live in a town in America, you live in a potential Wal-Mart town.

The thought of opposing big box retail is relatively new. For years, even those who thought acres of parking surrounding a huge store was a bad idea felt that resistance was futile. It's not, and real people are showing that there is nothing inevitable about a country filled with towns ringed by superstores and dead at the center.



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