When Wal-Mart encounters a zoning law it doesn’t like, it simply dips into its corporate treasury, buys itself a public relations firm, adds some petition signature gatherers, and gets busy making new laws. That’s what’s happening in the small town of Bennington, Vermont, in the southern end of the state. Wal-Mart went into an existing store in Bennington in the early 1990s, and even though the 50,000 s.f. store was not quite in downtown Bennington, the company agreed to recycle an existing building as part of its compromise to get into Vermont. But now, a decade later, Wal-Mart has growing pains, and launched an effort to gather signatures to get rid of the town’s current 75,000 s.f. cap on the size of retail buildings. The townspeople of Bennington will get to vote on “Wal-Mart’s referendum” on April 5th, and you can be sure that the retailer plans to test again its theory that when it comes to ballot questions, the party with the most money wins. Because there is no limit on corporate contributions to such ballot campaigns, Wal-Mart will spend like a drunken sailor to overturn the work of the Bennington Planning Commission. The local newspaper, the Bennington Banner, editorialized this week that voters should be careful what they wish for, and called the cap on size a guideline “that gives the town a good chance to retain its historic character.” “It’s worth noting too,” the paper said, “that under current regulations, the existing Wal-Mart can expand by about 50 percent from its current size, which would take it to 75,000 square feet or thereabouts. That would make it the largest store in town by a comfortable margin, bigger than the entire Home Depot Plaza, for example. By way of comparison, the neighboring Price Chopper is about 60,000 square feet.” The Bennington Banner noted, “it is also important to ensure that we have some kind of level playing field going on, and a behemoth like Wal-Mart – or any other of the mega-chains – are a threat to smaller mom-and-pop shops that represent the American dream for their owners. True, they can fill niches a large chain can’t. But, there is a real question about how fair that competition is…Simply allowing a Wal-Mart to more than double in size may sound good at first blush for town tax revenues and job opportunities, but this is far from a win-win deal.”
Vermont was one of the last states in the country to take in Wal-Marts. The first stores in places like Bennington and Rutland were smaller stores, closer to the downtowns. At the time, many of us warned Vermont residents that this was just Wal-Mart’s entry strategy. After a few years, the retailer would seek to expand or abandon its existing stores for the more typical supercenter. As the Bennington Banner pointed out, residents need to be concerned about hollowing out the downtown. Wal-Mart was nowhere to be found during the three years in which Bennington planners wrote their new zoning code. Now, when it suits the company, they are ready to repeal the whole ordinance just to pave the way for a bigger store. Bennington has not substantially grown in population, and has no need for a larger superstore. But the voters better fasten their seatbelts, because the managers in Bentonville like to spend big, and put on a good show when expressing their corporate First Amendment rights.