The Canton, Illinois planning and zoning board fell all over themselves this week, drooling over the prospect of a Wal-Mart supercenter. The 33 acres of agricultural land Wal-Mart wants on the north edge of town is not zoned correctly, but the local boards didn’t miss a beat. But Canton Alderman Joe Berardi, who chairs the Public Works Committee, said his committee wants to negotiate with Wal-Mart over concerns about traffic on many of the residential streets that will feed cars into the supercenter. Berardi also pointed out that no buffer has been created to protect a nearby apartment complex in the area. “We don’t have a plan. We’re going to piecemeal this,” Berardi was quoted as saying by the Canton Daily Ledger. Alderman Eric Schenck said he worried about the huge volume of new traffic the Wal-Mart would bring. “Are we ready for that kind of growth?” he asked. Schenck said the Wal-Mart could trigger the abandonment of development in the downtown area. “I’d hate for that to be the future of Canton,” Schenck was quoted by the Ledger as saying. He said Canton needs to develop the downtown tax increment financing district, “so we don’t leave downtown behind.” Canton’s downtown already has an empty hardware store, and 12 other vacant lots. City officials seem unable to reconcile the possible destruction Wal-Mart would do on the edge of the city to their on-going problems maintaining a vital downtown commercial core. Officials admitted that Wal-Mart could become a retail hub on the edge of town, transferring more sales from the already hurting downtown core. Berardi told city officials, “I’m going to do what’s best for Canton.” He said it was easy to take a pro-business position by saying a person is for Wal-Mart. “I’m pro-Canton.” The Mayor of Canton, Rod Heinze, said that the supercenter would generate $500,000 in sales tax and $200,000 in property tax revenue for the city each year — which of course is a gross figure, before you net out the lost taxes elsewhere when more local businesses close, jobs are lost, and properties become vacant. Canton has 33 acres of land in the middle of Canton, the former International Harvester site, that it needs to develop. The Wal-Mart project draws energy away from that effort. “We (the city) have a legal obligation to make the decision on Wal-Mart based on whether the zoning is suitable for commercial development. If it is suitable, then the appropriate vote is ‘yes,'” Mayor Heinze said. “We are deciding on a legal issue. Whether we want Wal-Mart or not is not at issue. We say we want growth and increased revenue and now we have an opportunity to get it. Voting on the Wal-Mart zoning is a vote for economic development to go up or to go down.”
Mayor Rod Heinze is the classic small town Mayor in America. He wants growth, and he thinks that building on the periphery of town is going to somehow revitalize his dying downtown. Unfortunately, Mayor Heinze probably can’t point to a town where edge development fed the core business district. Wal-Mart promotes itself as “a one stop shop.” Wal-Mart shoppers don’t go downtown. Rather than rezoning 33 acres of agricultural land on the edge, the Mayor should be promoting his 33 acres near the downtown to create real synergy. Canton is drifting, and a Wal-Mart supercenter is just enough to ensure that the downtown will remain a graveyard of empty retail buildings. Big box retail drew away the shoppers from downtown Canton, and now a supercenter right on the edge of town will finish it off. The Mayor sees Wal-Mart as economic development, but many area businesses see Wal-Mart as just economic dislocation.