The Canadian city of Owen Sound, Ontario is 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 don’t mention the Wal-Mart store on 18th Avenue East as part of the flora and fauna — — but its there, and the Wal-Mart Canada wants to make it even bigger. Owen Sound is the largest urban community in Grey and Bruce Counties, which combined represents a primary commercial market of 158,000 people. 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 are 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 is “controversial,” and is likely to draw more sparks on April 20th when the plan comes before the City Council. The city’s planning department has recommended that the Council change its official land use plan to accommodate this expansion, and also adopt a bylaw amendment. However, the planners have told the Council they want 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 sectio. 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 is recommending 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.
The two recommendations from the consultant are not likely to make much of a difference to Wal-Mart, or to the survival of its competitors. The 2011 opening only puts off the project for six months later than the opening date Wal-Mart wanted, and the 30,000 s.f. limit is only 5,000 s.f. less than Wal-Mart’s proposal — a 14% reduction. City planners are saying that the expansion is 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, You surely can’t believe that the downtown A&P is going to fare better if Wal-Mart shaves off 5,000 s.f. from its grocery department. And a six month delay in the expanded Wal-Mart opening will only postpone the inevitable. The fact is, this store represents an incompatible use that is suburban in nature, dropped into your urban environment. 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? You are trying to lure tourists to your revitalized downtown — yet force them to drive by a Wal-Mart supercenter along the way. This is just bad planning, and results from having no clear vision of where you want the city to go. The City Council has the right to say 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. I urge you to lobby your colleagues to reject the conditions, and reject the expansion outright.”