Vermonters Are Up against the Wal-Mart

By Johnson, Sally | Insight on the News, January 10, 1994 | Go to article overview

Vermonters Are Up against the Wal-Mart


Johnson, Sally, Insight on the News


Summary: Vermont is the only state in the lower 48 without a Wal-Mart, and activists there hope to keep it that way. Opponents say the discount, retailer is destroying traditional New England towns, but others call that hypocrisy.

John Finn wasn't looking for a fight. Seventy years old and ailing from Parkinson's disease, Finn left the Vermont General Assembly a year ago to reduce the stress in his life. Now he finds himself engaged in combat with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest and most successful discount retailer in the nation.

The battleground is a weedy, abandoned dairy farm near the railroad tracks where St. Albans City meets St. Albans Town. Wal-Mart hopes to erect a 126,000-square-foot store on the site immediately, with room to expand to 156,000 square feet - approximately 10 acres - in the near future.

For Wal-Mart, the Bentonville, Ark., company founded in 1962 by Sam Walton and his brother, J. L. "Bud" Walton, a store at the 107-acre site would be a presence in the virgin territory of Vermont, the only state in the contiguous U.S. where the retailer hasn't built. A Wal-Mart/Sam's Club project planned for Williston, Vt., about 50 miles to the south, has been tied up in court for nearly two years and is likely to remain so for some time. And although the company says it is looking at other sites in Vermont, it hasn't announced any alternatives.

For Finn and 30 or so members of the Franklin-Grand Isle Counties Citizens for Downtown Preservation St. Albans represents a last-ditch effort against the forward march of retailing behemoths, whose discount business practices enable them to dominate local markets within a few years, if not months, of arrival. What Finn and the others fear is that the coming of Wal-Mart would mean the end of downtown as they know it. "I've lived here all my life," says Finn, who was county sheriff for many years, "and I don't want to see my city destroyed."

The battle in the far no corner of Vermont is part of a war being waged across New England during the past year; from Maine to Massachusetts, towns are just saying no to Wal-Mart:

* In Williston, the local opposition and the developer, Tafts Corners Associates, have tangled over a host of issues, sending the project careening from local board to state board to court and back again like a pingpong ball. At present, the state Environmental Board is preparing to schedule a second round of hearings, which are not likely to begin before February, a full two years after the store first was proposed for the site.

* In Greenfield, Mass., a slim majority of voters in October rejected a rezoning proposal that would have opened the door to Wal-Mart. The final tally in the referendum was 2,854-2,845.

* In Westford, Mass., a town of 17,000 people about 30 miles northwest of Boston, a citizens group discovered quite by accident that Wal-Mart was behind a plan to develop a 25-acre parcel at the town's only commercial intersection. The group subsequently mounted a public relations campaign against Wal-Mart until the company backed off, saying unofficially that it had lost interest in the project.

New Englanders' historic love affair with community - broadly defined as a place in which everybody is in it together - is the impetus behind these protests. "New Englanders love their landscape and their idyllic villages," says Dick Gsottschneider, president of RKG Associates of Durham, N.H., a private consulting firm that has analyzed the economic impact of Wal-Mart for clients on both sides of the issue. "Unlike other parts of the country, New England has relatively little good, unused land for development."

In Westford, for example, local activist Elizabeth Michaud persuaded friend Emily Teller, who in turn persuaded several of her neighbors, that Wal-Mart was a bad idea for their town. Their ad hoc Stop Wal-Mart Committee began by passing out buttons and bumper stickers at the annual Apple Blossom Parade. …

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