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Wal-Mart’s Low Prices Are No Bargain, Citizens Say

Charlevoix group may hold edge in struggle with world’s largest retailer

April 27, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Wal-Mart stores have become very familiar sights on the American landscape. But citizen groups across the country are increasingly successful in their attempts to slow the huge company’s unprecedented expansion.

CHARLEVOIX – Wal-Mart, which has grown so big so fast that many scholars now regard the company as the newest signature of American capitalism, wants to build 10 “supercenters” in Michigan this year, part of a national campaign to add 300 more stores and 50 million square feet of retail space in the United States, or roughly enough to cover two square miles under one roof.

But the aggressive bid to accelerate what has been an astonishing two-decade-old colonization of suburban and rural retail and grocery markets in Michigan and nationwide is facing surprisingly stiff resistance in big and small towns alike, including in this northern Lake Michigan resort city of 3,000 people.

Late last month Wal-Mart submitted drawings to build a 155,800-square-foot supercenter on a wooded 24-acre parcel in Charlevoix Township, just across the city boundary. The massive store, which would be the fourth that Wal-Mart has built since the early 1990s within close driving distance of Charlevoix — the others are in Gaylord, Traverse City, and Petoskey — would add groceries to the mix of competitively-priced clothing, tools, toys, and other goods that have turned the Arkansas-based retailer into the largest company in the world.

But the easy path through the township to the needed land use permits that Wal-Mart anticipated is now blocked by a political dogfight that the company’s opponents here could very well win. This Is Our Town, a public interest organization of business, elected, and citizen leaders that was established only last October, has mounted such an effective grassroots information and advocacy campaign against the new store and the company’s business practices that Charlevoix Township officials this week cancelled the first of a series of public hearings after Wal-Mart missed a deadline for submitting its plans. The delay also gives township planning officials more time to consider how to conduct meetings that are likely to be heavily attended.

“We’re making the case that this store is a real threat to our way of life,” said Bob Hoffman, a Charlevoix accountant who helped to organize This Is Our Town. “We’re doing our research, sticking to the facts, and staying on message. It’s helped a lot of people here understand what this store could mean for Charlevoix, and we’ve generated a lot of support.”

Too Big, Too Powerful for Too Many People
The citizen resistance here is the latest evidence of a powerful backlash occurring at the grassroots in Michigan and nationally against Wal-Mart and other big box retailers. Critics say these companies and their stores are too big, too powerful, and too disruptive to regional economies, labor markets, and patterns of development. Al Norman, a Massachusetts-based activist who spoke here on April 15 and is widely regarded as the nation’s most knowledgeable Wal-Mart critic, counts 213 communities in 42 states that in recent years have blocked Wal-Mart and other big box retailers from settling in their towns. The successful citizen battles include a 2-to-1 margin in a vote on April 6 by citizens in Inglewood, California that denied Wal-Mart permission to build a supercenter on a parcel of land the size of 17 football fields.

Mr. Norman’s list does not count several other Michigan communities that have prevented so-called “big box sprawl,” including Acme Township, northeast of Traverse City, which prevented construction of a Meijer store in the late 1990s, and Marian City, near Port Huron, where citizens are also now battling a Wal-Mart supercenter.

The revolt here and across the nation reflects growing popular unease about the tradeoffs that communities can expect from having a Wal-Mart in their midst. The company’s critics say that in return for what the company calls its “every day low prices” comes economic dominance in regional grocery and retail markets, the closure of family-owned and other small businesses, a shift from higher-wage to lower-wage jobs, dramatically altered patterns of traffic and land use, and increased health and police costs.

Unlike General Motors and other large companies of the mid-20th century that embraced the era’s design, manufacturing, and distribution technologies to produce excellent products, set higher standards for wages and benefits, and become what scholars call the “prototypical company” of that era, Wal-Mart is shaping the nation with a much different vision. The company, which last year had $256 billion in revenue, most of it from the 3,559 stores it manages in the United States, has both reached deep into the political process, and also perfected new technologies of production, marketing, and distribution to buy and sell goods on a global scale at prices almost no other company can match. One result is that 138 million Americans shop in Wal-Mart every week. But economists say that Wal-Mart is also driving down wages, limiting worker benefits, influencing trade policy, accelerating sprawl, and putting competitors big and small out of business.

“Wal-Mart has come to represent something that’s even bigger than it is,” said Susan Strasser, a history professor at the University of Delaware who attended a conference of scholars studying Wal-Mart earlier this month at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Local Control: Last Line of Defense
Residents of conservative Charlevoix are now discussing these very same issues. They are suddenly confronting the real-life consequences of economic, trade, labor, and environmental policies that enhance Wal-Mart’s power and simultaneously put their own businesses, families, and communities in jeopardy.

While most residents say they cannot fathom how to influence changes in Lansing or Washington, hundreds of Wal-Mart’s critics have turned to local governments as a last line of defense. Indeed, one of the most powerful tools for responding to Wal-Mart is a community’s master land use plan and zoning ordinance, which provide clear guidance and authority for citizens who want to drive what they see as a major threat from their midst.

The power of such township master plans made itself evident earlier this month during an outpouring of public resistance in Manistee against a Texas company’s proposal to build a $700 million, 425-megawatt, coal-fired power plant there. The effective, citizen-led invoking of the master plan and zoning rules compelled Manistee officials to deny the proposal.

This Is Our Town, composed of local leaders with almost no experience organizing at the grassroots, is taking a page from the struggle in Manistee and so far doing a lot of things right to win its campaign, especially in communicating its message. The Wal-Mart supercenter, the group says, is likely to produce such substantial changes in Charlevoix’s patterns of development and retail and grocery economy that local family-owned businesses will close, dozens of people will lose good paying jobs and health benefits, Charlevoix’s healthy downtown business district will suffer, and sprawling development will increase south of the city.

Earlier this year the group distributed petitions opposing the store and more than 4,000 residents signed them. Charlevoix’s mayor opposes the new store and a city council member sat on the committee that established This Is Our Town. Though the decision to allow the new store rests with the township, the city has the authority to deny Wal-Mart access to a sewer line to the property, which could significantly impede development.

The Power of a Master Plan
On April 15, This Is Our Town attracted nearly 300 residents to a public meeting at Charlevoix High School to hear Mr. Norman explain precisely why the township’s zoning ordinance and master plan barred the Wal-Mart store. Mr. Norman insisted that the new store “fails to meet at least five of the town's nine standards for site plan approval because it is incompatible with the character of the general vicinity, will alter the essential character of the neighborhood, will have a negative impact on the value of land in the community, will create excessive additional public costs for police, fire, and road maintenance, and is inconsistent with the master plan.”

"Charlevoix is obviously a community that wants to avoid commercial strip development," said Mr. Norman. "The good news is that in a community of 5,000 people if you can get this kind of a turnout on a Thursday evening, a beautiful Thursday evening, that tells me you can certainly win.”

Wal-Mart’s representatives contend the company is an asset to communities in which it does business. "It behooves us to listen to the people and see if we have an opportunity to address their concerns," John Bisio, a Wal-Mart spokesman, told the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

One woman who stood up at the public meeting insisted that driving 14 miles north to Petoskey, where the closest Wal-Mart is located, was too far. She welcomed what Wal-Mart represented in Charlevoix. “There are some people, more than you think, who would like to shop at Wal-Mart because they have the lowest prices,” she said.

Wal-Mart’s new store in Charlevoix would add to the 92 stores, supercenters, and Sam’s Clubs that it already operates in Michigan. The Charlevoix store would be located along US 31 and Marion Center Road just south of Charlevoix’s walkable downtown. It would feature a supermarket, general merchandise, a garden center, a tire and lube station, and a 774-space parking lot. Wal-Mart wants to begin building this summer and open by next spring. The seven parcels that Wal-Mart purchased are zoned commercial, but the township’s zoning ordinance contains specific provisions that are designed to ensure the region’s small town atmosphere and rural quality of life.

“This is a community that lives on tourism, and has to be very careful not to imitate the land use patterns of other communities that have been run over by asphalt and concrete malls,” said Mr. Norman in an article on his Web site.  “The town has an ailing Kmart, and a compact downtown that will see no benefit from the Wal-Mart.”



Wal-Mart Throws In Towel In Charlevoix
Charlevoix, May 25, 2004 -- The Wal-Mart Company today notified Charlevoix Township that it was withdrawing its application to build a new supercenter on 24 acres just outside the city limits. The company said it was also abandoning its plan to build a supercenter in the Charlevoix market. The company's statement came in a three sentence e-mail and did not elaborate on what caused the world's largest company to change its decision. Wal-Mart faced stiff resistance here from This Is Our Town, a six month-old citizen group that mounted an effective fact-based campaign that raised questions about the economic consequences of having such a large store in a region of much smaller family-owned businesses.   

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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