On April 18, 2009 Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart’s superstore plans were falling on deaf ears in the Canadian city of Owen Sound, Ontario. Located on the southern shores of Georgian Bay in a valley below the sheer rock cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, Owen Sound boasts that it has “a magnificent harbor and bay, two winding rivers, tree-lined streets, an extensive parks system, and tree-covered hillsides and ravines, which are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna.” They’ve also got a Wal-Mart store on 18th Avenue East — but it doesn’t look now like the company is going to be able to convert it into a superstore. Owen Sound is the largest urban community in Grey and Bruce Counties. The city points to its Victorian-era downtown area, which was “recently refurbished and reminiscent of the 1900s,” which “offers an economy that is balanced and diversified.” The city has its Heritage Place Shopping Centre on the east side of its “scenic downtown core.” Wal-Mart adds nothing to that scenic downtown, but city officials were mulling over a plan to allow Wal-Mart to expand its existing discount store. According to the Owen Sound Sun Times, the Wal-Mart expansion was “controversial,” and in fact did not fare well on April 20th, when the plan came before the City Council. The city’s planning department had recommended that the Council change its official land use plan to accommodate this expansion, and also adopt a bylaw amendment. However, the planners told the Council they wanted to see the grocery section of the expanded Wal-Mart limited to 30,000 s.f., and not allowed to open until January of 2011. These restrictions were suggested to city leaders because during public hearings on the Wal-Mart plan, many residents and downtown businesses protested the plan, and warned city councilors that the proposal would hurt area merchants. During hearings last February, most members of the Council said publicly that they would not support the expansion, in part because of its negative impact on the downtown A&P and other stores in the city’s core. The owner of the A&P store, Metro Ontario, Inc, told the city that its existing store would be “at serious risk of closure” if Wal-Mart’s were allowed to open an expanded grocery section. Metro requested that the Council postpone a vote on the project until Metro could bring in data showing the impact the superstore would have on them. The city subsequently reviewed Metro’s report, and determined that the A&P was operating in deficit, even without the Wal-Mart expansion. The city’s reviewer recommended that the city “mitigate the risk of closure” of the downtown grocery store by requiring that the Wal-Mart grocery section be capped at 30,000 s.f., and that the grocery section not be allowed to open until the start of 2011. But when the matter reached the Owen Sound City Council this week, officials decided to turn down the expansion — even though they expect Wal-Mart to appeal the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The vote to reject the 30,000 s.f. expansion was 6-3. No zoning bylaw change will be made, and no change to the city’s official land use plan. The Council told its planners to prepare a “carefully worded” motion to reject Wal-Mart’s proposal, in anticipation of an appeal. According to the Sun Times, the Council turned down the proposal citing adverse impacts on the city’s downtown, specifically the A&P, which is seen as a critical part of the downtown area. “Our role is not to regulate competition,” Council member Bill Twaddle said, “but under our official plan, we have an absolute obligation to protect a significant component of a distinct commercial district, that being the city’s downtown.” Mayor Ruth Lovell Stanners was among those councilors voting down the expansion. Before the vote, Wal-Mart apparently threatened the city with an expensive appeal to the OMB. “It is not council’s role to make a decision based on an implied threat,” one councilor said.
If Wal-Mart appeals to the OMB, it could cost the city “tens of thousands of dollars” one city staffer estimated. “I would just love to say no and have Wal-Mart go away, but that’s not going to happen. If we say no, we’re going to the OMB,” another councilor admitted. Wal-Mart would only indicate to the newspaper that it would consider an appeal. Paraphrasing a line from Sprawl-Busters, Mayor Stanners said, “you can’t buy, in my opinion, what it is that I’m trying to preserve,” referring to the downtown. The Mayor said the city’s official plan requires the council to maintain the downtown as a focus for growth and employment. “Quite frankly, I don’t care if it’s A&P, Foodland or Food Basics in the downtown, I think it’s essential that there be a grocery store downtown,” the Mayor said. After reviewing the sales data in the Metro study, the city’s consultant said the A&P would close if “too much new food retail space is introduced too fast.” The two recommendations from the consultant were not likely to make much of a difference to Wal-Mart, or to the survival of its competitors. The idea of postponing a Wal-Mart opening until 2011 only puts off the project for six months later than the original opening date, and the 30,000 s.f. limit is only 5,000 s.f. less than Wal-Mart’s proposal — a 14% reduction. City planners said that the expansion was consistent with the Ontario Policy Statement on growth, and with the city’s official plan, and the eastside commercial plan. But it is obvious that the huge superstore will not help efforts to stabilize local businesses downtown, or aid in the downtown’s revitalization. A bigger Wal-Mart just represents more inharmonious suburban sprawl set in the middle of an urban environment. Readers are urged to email Owen Sound Mayor Ruth Lovell Stanners at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Stanners, Congratulations on your vote to prevent a frivolous Wal-Mart expansion. It is great to see local officials standing by their official plan. The fact is, the scale of this Wal-Mart plan simply makes no sense, and cannot be justified economically, since it only represents a transfer of sales from existing merchants to Wal-Mart — not added value economically. I can understand Wal-Mart’s desire to control more market share — but what’s in it for Owen Sound? This is just bad planning, and flies in the face of where the city wants to go. The City Council had the right to conclude that the entire expansion represents a form of growth that is out of character with surrounding uses, and will result in loss of value and adverse impact to other properties. A bigger Wal-Mart is wholly inharmonious with your built environment, and the City Council is the only body that can prevent this big mistake from happening. You will prevail at the OMB, and Wal-Mart will come off once again as the corporate bully, trying to get by litigation what it could not get by regulation.”