Note: It caused quite a stir when the National Trust named the state of Vermont to its 2004 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, citing the onslaught of big box retail development, notably plans by Wal- Mart to build seven new superstores there. Media throughout Vermont and in places from San Francisco to St Paul, Minn., to Greensboro, N.C., to London, England, reacted with articles and commentaries. About 60 percent of the opinion pieces seen by the National Trust applauded the listing and the concerns it raised, but others attacked it, including one in Florida’s Orlando Sentinel: “Wal-Mart the new PC whipping boy” by Peter A. Brown. The Orlando Sentinel published this response by National Trust President Richard Moe on June 11.
In his May 28 commentary, Peter Brown completely missed the point of the National Trust’s inclusion of the state of Vermont on its 2004 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. We’re not out to “demonize” Wal-Mart. Rather, we’re simply reminding Vermonters that they have the right to decide what their communities are going to be like.
Although there are already four Wal-Mart stores in Vermont, three of them are relatively small and located in or near town centers. Wal-Mart is to be commended for doing the right thing with these stores -- but now the company is planning to saturate the state with seven new stores in outlying locations, each with a minimum of 150,000 square feet. These hulking megastores can drain the economic life out of traditional downtowns.
Brown claims to make his arguments on behalf of the middle middle class, stating, “Joe and Jill Average vote with their wallets.” But in communities across America, Joe and Jill Average are also the people who own the downtown pharmacies, hardware stores, and gift shops. When locally owned businesses are forced to close because of a massive, sprawl-inducing Wal-Mart, how does that benefit the middle class? A better alternative -- in Vermont and elsewhere -- is scaled-down Wal-Marts that can complement existing business instead of obliterating them.
Of course communities can choose to put out the welcome mat for national chain retailers, but -- and it’s a very important “but” -- they should do so with a full understanding of the consequences. Plenty of towns from coast to coast have learned that big-box prices may be low, but the hidden costs are enormous. The new maximega- marts may provide jobs and tax revenues, but will they offset the jobs and revenues lost when downtown businesses fold? The stores may generate impressive sales figures, but will the money stay in town, as it does with locally owned businesses, or will most of it fly to a corporate headquarters several states away? Shoppers may like the low prices, but how much are they paying for the new roads, water and sewer lines, police and fire protection that the stores require?
Here’s the bottom line: How much paved-over open space, downtown disinvestment, increased traffic, loss of locally owned business, and destruction of community character are people willing to accept in exchange for inexpensive towels and lawn chairs? Vermonters certainly have the right to choose, but they should think long and hard before making a choice they might later regret.
Publication Date: September/October 2004