The Mt. Hood/Columbia River Gorge region in Oregon is surely one of the special places on earth, and residents in Hood River County (pop. 20,000) are acutely aware of how easily sprawl can strip a place of its unique qualities. Set like a precious stone between views of snow-draped Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams, the city of Hood River is vigorously fending off a frivolous proposal by Wal-Mart to replace its existing 72,000 s.f. discount store, with an enormous 185,000 s.f. supercenter. The 16 acre proposal lies along an historic highway, across the road from an historic hotel, and hard-by the majestic Columbia River. This valley of apple, pear and cherry orchards, is an incongruous place for a single-story, flat-roofed dead piece of architecture — but on top of it all Wal-Mart has to dislocate at least 26 families from their mobile home park on the property. A number of these families are low-income and latino, and have no options other than to walk away from their homes, because no other trailer parks will accept them. These families will lose their homes so the Wal-Mart corporation can have a second home. So far, the most compelling reason Wal-Mart has dredged up for the need for larger digs is that their customers want “wider aisles” and a “brighter feeling” for their store. Wal-Mart’s existing store, which only has been in Hood River since 1992, is the largest retail store in the city’s history. Now the corporation wants to boost its size two and a half times — large enough perhaps to accomodate the shopping width needed by popular windsurfers carrying their windboards. Retail sales in Hood River are led by grocery sales, which now make up at least 28% of all retail sales. Wal-Mart clearly wants in on that market share, and will jeopardize the existence of the two unionized grocery stores that already do business in town and pay their workers more than Wal-Mart. More appalling is the fact that Wal-Mart’s supercenter is likely to be “Hood River’s last big mistake”, according to the well-organized Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG), which is leading the effort to sink the Hood River plan. This is “sprawl’s last hurrah” because both Hood River city and county have recently adopted a size restriction ordinance that caps the size of retail businesses at 50,000 s.f. Right before Christmas, Wal-Mart filed plans for its supercenter, just weeks before the county had a chance to adopt the size limits. So Wal-Mart got in under the wire to avoid the size ceiling — but no other big boxes can avoid the new ordinance. Fortunately, the County of Hood River has existing site plan decision criteria which could easily submerge Wal-Mart. The land Wal-Mart wants is located outside of the city in the “Urban Growth Area”, but technically speaking, because of a city/county UGA agreement, the city could nix the plan as being incompatible with its own comprehensive plan, and deny the project a sewer hook up because of it. But the county also has 11 Decision Criteria for approving a site plan — one of which says “the bulk and scale of buildings shall be compatible with the site and buildings in the surrounding area.” This criteria, along with Criteria on traffic, design, orientation of the building and parking lot orientation are major hurdles for Wal-Mart to overcome. Even into its second version of the site plan, the 185,000 s.f. scale of the project is grossly out of scale with the rest of the built environment. Finally, the project has to rechannel and fill part of the 7 mile Phelps Creek that runs right through the property. The environmental degradation, the unrooting of families, the incompatibility of design — all conspire to poke holes in Wal-Mart’s plans. All of this is prompted by the less than compelling need to give Wal-Mart “wider aisles.” On May 31st, nearly 200 local residents staged an “Arms Around Our Town” walk around the perimeter of the downtown to show the enormous scale of this proposal. City planners must also contend with the liklihood that if Wal-Mart were to get approval for a superstore, its existing store would become what Wal-Mart spokesperson Amy Hill called a “dark store” — adding to the “Evil Empire’s” nearly 400 dark stores elsewhere in America.
It only took me 48 hours in Hood River to see how incongruous Wal-Mart’s plans were for this small community. Here is a city and county both which have articulated a desire to limit the scale of suburban stores — yet Wal-Mart is forging ahead, trying to play “gotcha” with local residents by slipping in under the wire. What kind of corporate culture deliberately tries to get around such clear public purpose? I was amazed to learn from city officials that because Oregon has no sales tax, the current Wal-Mart pays only $23,000 a year in property tax and sewer fees to a city with an $8.6 million operating budget. It’s one thing to sell your soul to the devil for great wealth — but in this case, Hood River loses its soul for a little Wal-Mart spare change. For more info on CRG, go to www.hoodriversfuture.org. For local contacts, email [email protected]