Wal-Mart has another battle on its hands in the city of Stanwood, Washington. Residents in this community have begun picketing and gathering petition signatures to stop the construction of a Wal-Mart supercenter. The group says they have over 1,000 signatures on their anti-Wal-Mart petition. Residents are writing letters, and taking out ads in the local newspaper. “The biggest concern with a very large entity is that it puts existing businesses out of business,” Rosanne Cohn, spokeswoman for the group Design Stanwood, told the Herald newspaper. Wal-Mart reportedly wants the city to rezone 23 acres of land on highway 532. The retailer is selling their proposal on the assumption that a supercenter means more revenue for the community, even though local officials have no study to determine what the NET impact of the superstore would be — especially after it puts existing grocery stores out of business. A Wal-Mart spokesman said, “Generally, our stores generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue.” He provided no proof of that, and hedged his statement by saying, “generally.” Stanwood, like most communities, is seeking ways to pay for city costs. Ironically, Wal-Mart comes with a big price tag, especially for public safety costs, like extra police coverage. One city councilor told the newspaper, “I’m open to hearing all the facts. The facts I’ve been receiving so far have probably been 90% against Wal-Mart.” The company officially has not publicly announced its intentions for Stanwood, but they rarely talk about such plans until a proposal is actually submitted, because just the shadow of a supercenter is enough to kick residents into high gear. A developer wrote a letter to the city council last fall suggesting that the land near the Stanwood High School be rezoned for a Wal-Mart. The biggest obstacle Wal-Mart faces, and the easiest way for city officials to turn down their request, is that the land the company wants happens to be zoned residential. Rezoning land from residential to commercial for a superstore is like comparing an outboard motor to a jet engine. The intensity of use difference is radically different, and land zoned residential often means there is other residential property nearby. Superstores and homes or schools make terrible neighbors. They are incompatible uses, even when developers try to buffer or berm their project. The damage to property values and quality of life from such a jarring juxtaposition just can’t be mitigated. The Stanwood City Council is considering hiring a consultant with $12,200 to study the impact a supercenter would have on the city. Wal-Mart already plans to open a superstore less than 10 miles away in Smokey Point.
Wal-Mart is facing an unprecedented rise in opposition as it pursues its goal of adding 240 new supercenters this year. I have predicted that at least 80 of those stores will be challenged by citizens’ groups. That fact should be sobering to stockholders who are expecting all those units to come on line promptly and generate sales growth. As opposition to Wal-Mart deepens, at some point in the not too distant future, all communities like Stanwood will have a group ready to sprawl-bust their Wal-Mart proposal. That means time and money lost to Wal-Mart. But even with so many groups on their case, Wal-Mart won’t really change its behavior until sales growth begins to stumble. Citizen opposition, and increasing numbers of shoppers staying out of Wal-Mart aisles, are the two factors that will change Wal-Mart’s personality dramatically. It’s only a matter of time at this point.