The small community of Baxter, Minnesota already has a Wal-Mart discount store, but now a Minneapolis developer wants to build a bigger one. The Assistant Manager at the current Wal-Mart told a reporter he doesn’t know about the proposed supercenter, but the bigger store is certain to close down the existing Wal-Mart in Baxter. The Brainerd Daily Dispatch reported this week that developer Central Lakes Properties wants to build an enormous, 207,502 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter and gas station near highway 371. The developer apparently has to convert forest land into a Wal-Mart to get this project done. The Baxter Planning and Zoning Commission will take up the conditional use permit on February 11th. As is often the case with supercenters these days, a citizen’s group, the Coalition for Responsible Development (CRD) is planning to oppose the project before the P&Z. According to the Daily Dispatch story, CRD says a Wal-Mart Super Center will shut down smaller, family-run businesses, and result in no net gain in jobs. CRD says Wal-Mart revenues don’t stay in local banks and they don’t do business with other local businesses. “We need to support what we have now, as far as businesses that are locally owned, independent, and the backbone of community we live in,” said one CRD member. The City Planner in Baxter told the newspaper that if the developer meets the zoning code requirements, the city is in no position to deny the superstore concept. In other words, conditional use permits are automatic in Baxter. Often, citizen’s groups encounter this kind of “passive zoning” approach by local officials, who exude a “done deal” attitude when talking to residents. The reality is that there are often many site-related issues, such a traffic, impact on surrounding properties, incompatibility with the comprehensive plan, etc. that are legitimate issues to raise during hearings, and in legal appeals. Often citizens have to fight not only the developer, but the city’s passive or active support for developers. And if push comes to shove, residents always have their first amendment rights to challenge any permit in court, delaying Wal-Mart by as much as a year.
Last year at this time, Wal-Mart had 3 “dark stores” available for lease in Minnesota. The Baxter proposal is how these dark stores are created. Wal-Mart is sytematically closing down its discount stores across America, state after state. In Minnesota, they had 228,312 s.f. of empty stores as of last February. Local officials mistakenly believe that a new building going up must mean jobs, but in the case of Baxter, the new Wal-Mart adds another grocery store to the local trade area, and other existing groceries will close. The economic impact on Baxter could be a loss of jobs and revenues, since the local stores spend more of their money right in Baxter. When the newspaper went to ask the developer and Wal-Mart what would happen to the existing Wal-Mart in Baxter, both were unavailable for comment.