Tillsonburg, Ontario, serves as a regional retail center. It has a population of only 15,000 people, but says there are 100,000 people within a 30 minute drive. The town’s motto is: “A Place to Build Your Future.” “We are a dynamic, prosperous and caring community,” say town officials. The town views itself as a “fast growing town” in southwestern Ontario’s industrial corridor, and promotes its quality of life. “Experience Tillsonburg,” says Mayor Stephen Molnar, “you will not be disappointed.” But many residents in Tillsonburg are disappointed that the Mayor has not taken a more aggressive stand against a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter submitted by one of the major developers of such projects in Canada, the inappropriately named “SmartCentres.” Three ex-Mayors have testified against the plan for a 175,000 s.f. superstore, slated for the town’s north end. Several economic impact studies for the town have warned of significant and adverse impacts of this project on existing businesses. Oxford County planners have asked for more data on traffic from the Ministry of Transportation, and are concerned about the availability of water and wastewater services at the site, according to the Tillsonburg News. Two town councilors have had to recuse themselves because of a financial conflicts of interest. In March, 2008, former Mayor Cam McKnight said the key issues were developer credibility, municipal integrity, the impact on the downtown, and long-term planning and local quality of life. McKnight said “that trying to bulldoze applications through is nothing new for this developer.” “I was mayor in 1998 when the Norfolk Mall, then owned by the company now known as SmartCentres, wanted to expand that mall. The mall was on an outdated, broken septic system. It had been red-flagged by the Ministry of the Environment, the mall sewage was leaching into Tillsonburg’s wells in that area. With absolutely no regard for Tillsonburg or our drinking water, the company was adamant they would expand Wal-Mart, add four or five new box stores and another restaurant. They also hoped to eventually lure Canadian Tire out of our downtown to the Norfolk Mall location.” McKnight said the Tillsonburg council said no a decade ago, but SmartCentres appealed the case to the Ontario Municipal Board, and forced the town’s taxpayers to endure an expensive hearing — which the town ultimately won. “Now, 10 years later they want to be our best friends. I don’t think so,” the Mayor testified. The former Mayor pointed out that the town had already cut a deal with the owners of another mall, Town Centre Mall, to buy the Norfolk Mall, and the new owners agreed to pay for services to the Norfolk Mall in return for permission to expand the existing Wal-Mart at the Town Centre Mall to 100,000 s.f. All the work was done to accommodate an expanded Norfolk Mall. The former Mayor also noted that the town’s Official Plan for land use says that any major new commercial growth outside of the central retail area must first show that it will not have a negative impact on the center area. He is concerned that a Wal-Mart supercenter will kill the Zellers in the downtown area. If one major anchor closes, the ex-Mayor warned, “the Town Center would be become a ghost center.” “During my three terms as mayor of this community,” McKnight said, “I have realized that there are countless experts on countless subjects. They can talk up one side, down the other side, all they while tossing out random statistics to prove their point. You can hire them to argue black is white, white is black, or anything in-between… I would strongly suggest that Tillsonburg’s long-standing tradition of maintaining a strong downtown has had a very real and very positive impact on the quality of life in this town. Our core is vibrant, interesting and alive. It attracts friends, visitors and a lot of new residents. Our strong core acts as the heartbeat for this town, don’t tamper with the blood flow — just say no.” A study by the Climen Group Inc. concluded that if Wal-Mart is approved, it will increase the risk of store closures, and a chronic vacancy in some commercial locations in the town. Tillsonburg’s Chamber of Commerce has come out against the project, which is also opposed by the Norfolk Mall and the Town Centre Mall. The developer is accusing opponents of “fear-mongering.” “It’s easy to instill fear in people,” the SmartCentres spokesman told the Tillsonburg News, “but I don’t think that is the right thing to do. We will continue to go through the process, and we are looking forward to having this come to council for deliberation in the next few weeks.” Smart Centres claims that the Wal-Mart and other retail stores in the development will create 600 full and part-time jobs, and bring in $1.8 million in annual tax revenues, plus $1.44 million in development charges for Oxford county and Tillsonburg. These figures are gross revenues, and do not include any costs to the town for police, fire and other infrastructure services, or lost revenues from other stores that could shut down.
Wal-Mart has obviously taken the town’s motto seriously: “A Place to Build Your Future.” But Tillsonburg is selling itself as “a dynamic, prosperous and caring community” with “a vibrant downtown with an indoor mall.” Both the downtown and the mall will suffer if this project is approved. The town’s two major business groups, the Chamber of Commerce and the Tillsonburg Business Improvement Area (BIA) Board, have both panned the superstore project. The fact is, for a community with only 15,000 people, one Wal-Mart discount store is one more than enough. The goal of the BIA is the promotion and beautification of downtown Tillsonburg, and to make downtown Tillsonburg the “first choice for shopping and services needs.” They understand that Wal-Mart will detract from their goal. Readers are urged to email Tillsonburg Mayor Stephen Molnar at [email protected] with the following message: “Mayor Molnar, You live in a beautiful, small town that already has a Wal-Mart. Economic studies show that allowing a supercenter expansion will only put more existing businesses at risk. You should listen to what the BIA and the Chamber of Commerce have said about this project. If your local business advocates are opposed to the supercenter, your Administration should heed their warnings, and that of former Mayor McKnight. Another mall makes no sense, when you consider the impact on Norfolk and Town Centre Mall. This project is neither a job generator, nor a tax generator, because most of the job impacts will come, ironically, from the existing Wal-Mart. The town will be left with a “dark store” where the first Wal-Mart once was. You are not required to amend your Official Plan for this project. Tillsonburg can build a future — but not by building a bigger Wal-Mart.”