Sprawl-Busters first began writing about Spooner, Wisconsin in February of 2006, almost two years ago. As soon as residents learned that Wal-Mart wanted to build a superstore in Spooner, the opponents began to organize. On April 28, 2007, we reported that Wal-Mart’s plans had hit a major speed bump. The city, the Wisconsin DOT, and Washburn county officials had sent Wal-Mart a “list of improvements” they wanted for highways and access to the proposed supercenter. The officials told Wal-Mart these improvements were “required to be completed at Wal-Mart’s expense prior to the opening of the proposed Wal-Mart store.” Opponents of the Wal-Mart told Sprawl-Busters that Wal-Mart’s Public Relations manager told the local newspaper that Wal-Mart was at a “crossroad” with its plans to build in Spooner. The costs of road improvements would have to be paid by Wal-Mart, and that estimated cost could reach $4.8 million. This proposed 153,000 sf. Wal-Mart Supercenter had been slated for a 35 acre parcel of land that is owed by Washburn County. In November of 2005, the land sale for $1 million was kept “top secret”, with officials saying only that it involved a Fortune 100 retailer By March of 2006 the Mayor of Spooner admitted the retailer could be “a Wal-Mart Concept”. Finally it was revealed that Wal-Mart wanted to come to Spooner, Wisconsin, population 2,600, despite the fact that there are two Supercenters 20 minutes away in two directions. The grass-roots citizens group Washburn County First (WCF) formed to get information out to the public about the negative impact this development would have on the community. WCF filed a lawsuit against the county for open meetings violations and against the City Board of Alderman for alleged irregularities in granting a variance for the Supercenter with regard to highway access. The county admitted to one count of violating the open meeting law and paid a fine. The city was putting the superstore in a TIF (tax increment financing) district to offset their taxes, and Washburn County is one of the poorest in the state. Now this flurry of municipal giveaways may be coming to an end. The Spooner Advocate newspaper revealed this week that the Wal-Mart project is as frozen as the Wisconsin winter. “There is nothing yet to report on the status of the project on Spooner,” a Wal-Mart senior manager of public affairs said in an e-mail to Spooner Mayor Louie Villella. “While no decision has been made regarding the Spooner project, I feel it’s important you know what’s driving these decisions, and that you know these decisions are shaped by Wal-Mart’s desire for a responsible and managed growth strategy. Again, there is nothing yet to report on the status of the project in Spooner, but my colleagues at Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville expect this project to be reviewed in the coming weeks. I will of course keep you informed.” Wal-Mart admitted that the proposed Spooner Supercenter was in a “holding pattern” while the company instead has “made significant investments” in “sustainability, enhanced benefits and wages for associates and strengthened our commitment to communities we call home.” The company said it has “managed our growth to insure the long-term success.” That plan for success, however, may leave out Spooner forever.
This is, of course, great news for Washburn County First, the group fighting the project. Wal-Mart’s announcement last June that it was curtailing the growth of new stores was described in Spooner as being a “strategy designed to improve returns. To achieve that goal, all of our projects are going through additional internal reviews to insure they make sense from a big picture perspective. You may have read that we have scaled back our U.S. supercenter construction this past year from 281 stores to 195. As a result, we are not proceeding with some projects currently in our plan and/or have postponed some projects.” Opponents now may not have much longer to wait before the official word comes down that the Spooner store is dead. But Mayor Villella remains optimistic that some day his small town can boast of its own supercenter — just like the ones a few miles away. The Mayor told the newspaper, “They are still considering to build here. It still leaves hope they may still build here.” Readers are urged to contact Mayor Villella by calling Spooner City hall at 715-635-8769. Tell the Mayor: “You should be thankful that Wal-Mart is going to by-pass Spooner. Your small town has no need of a big superstore, especially with two superstores within an easy drive of Spooner. Don’t take this rejection personally. Wal-Mart has backed out of nearly 20 communities in the past few months. They’re listening to analysts on Wall Street, not to Mayors on Main Street. They’ve overbuilt, and now they’ve got to stop cannibalizing sales from their own stores. It’s time for Spooner to come up with some real economic development plans other than waiting for national chain stores to save you.”