Wal-Mart was just about to slice up the territory for one more superstore, when the County Commissioners in Ravalli County, Montana changed the rules on them. Wal-Mart had recently sent a “survey” to local residents telling them that the company was “planning to construct a new supercenter in Ravalli County near Hamilton.” The company sent survey cards to more than 19,000 Ravalli County residents, in an area much wider than Hamilton. Wal-Mart often sends such surveys to people who cannot vote on the subject, and who are far enough away from the store that they are not worried about its local impact. Wal-Mart said it had received 5,000 responses to the “survey,” with 3,400 in support of a Wal-Mart. But Wal-Mart hedged its bets when talking with the Missoulian newspaper, because the county was taking up the issue of an interim zoning ordinance to cap the size of retail stores at 60,000 s.f. The ordinance would also mandate that new stores between 25,000 and 60,000 s.f. to submit an impact study at the developer’s expense. “I don’t know that the proposed ordinance will go through,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Missoulian. “Until that is passed, we’re just watching with interest.” But on April 12th, in Hamilton Middle School, a crowd estimated at 1,000 watched as the Ravalli County commissioners approved the zoning regulations capping the size of retail stores at 60,000 s.f. Of the 100 people who testified, two out of three were in favor of the ordinance. “It was a wonderful thing to see that many concerned citizens turn out,” Ravalli County Attorney George Corn told the newspaper. “It made an enormous statement as to how important zoning is in Ravalli County. This is the biggest political turnout I’ve seen in the last 25 years.” Knowing that the size cap vote was coming up, Wal-Mart submitted a proposal to the state several days before the ordinance was passed. Whether or not the plan will be “grandfathered” under the new ordinance is not clear, but the timing of the filing was clearly an attempt by Wal-Mart to circumvent the will of the County Commissioners, who said the new regulations were designed to provide guidelines while the county’s staff put together a permanent ordinance. The interim guidelines last until April of 2007.
After Wal-Mart mailed out its 19,000 surveys, a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Missoulian, “I think that, frequently, Wal-Mart and other big-box groups are the victim of a very vocal minority, when in fact the vast majority does support the presence of a Wal-Mart, and I think we wanted to be sure we would be welcomed by most of residents – not just 20 percent.” In fact, such “surveys” are used by Wal-Mart for two simple purposes: 1) to wave in front of local officials suggesting that people want a superstore (most of those surveyed not being from the affected area) and 2) to create a database for Wal-Mart to notify for public hearings, making phone calls to officials, etc. It has nothing to do with measuring public opinion, because the questions asked usually make the store sound like an economic windfall for the community. But Ravalli County residents should be asking Wal-Mart to withdraw its proposal and abide by the interim regulations, and any permanent changes that follow. It is the height of arrogance that Wal-Mart would try to do an end-run around county officials by playing “beat the clock” with the proposal filing. It’s a sign of bad faith with the community, something Wal-Mart has perfected over the years. If a local community doesn’t want you, try to figure out some way to frustrate their desires. Sam Walton’s policy was not to create a fuss if a town didn’t want you, but to move on. But Sam Walton is long dead.