Don’t ask public officials in Courtenay, British Columbia about their vow of silence. Several city officials swore to keep quiet for Wal-Mart, until a few of them started talking. Wal-Mart reportedly wants to be part of a 278,000 s.f. mall being proposed by First Professional Management, Inc. of Ontario. The land they want is nearly 24 acres, about half the size of the entire downtown of Courtenay. The developer apparently held several meetings on the quiet with local officials, one of which included the area chamber of commerce. The manager of the local government-created Economic Development Society was one of those in attendance at the private meeting. “I am sworn to confidence,” he told reporters, “the meeting was in a confidential capacity.” One Councilor at the meeting did spill the beans, however, which upset Mayor Ron Webber, who also was at the secret session. “We agreed to keep quiet until they get things concrete. What’s the point in getting people worked up — there may not even be an application.” For several years, the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce has been advising local residents to just give in to the inevitability of Wal-Mart. “If the coming of the Superstore(another development) made you nervous,” the Chamber wrote in 1994, “Wal-Mart will make you ill. You have only one option — and that’s not to try to stop Wal-Mart — you can’t.” Five years later, with the Chamber now hosting a secret meeting, their sage advice has not changed a whit: “We’re not taking sides in the Wal-Mart debate largely because there is no debate. The fact is, Wal-Mart is coming and we’ve had nearly a decade to get ready for it.” Chamber President Joanne Bauldie adds: “We can’t put a glass bubble over the Valley and say ‘No Wal-Mart here’. All’s we can do is get prepared for them. It’s nothing new, it’s kind of an inevitable thing.” But citizens in Courtenay are not ready to accept the Chamber’s vision of the future. Opponents recently held a “Rock Against the Mall” concert to raise money to fight the proposed Wal-Mart. The city of Courtenay has a zoning ordinance that limits retail stores to 48,000 s.f., but the limit applies only to one of the city’s commercial zones, and the developer is asking for a rezoning from the existing industrial and residential zoning to a commercial classification not subject to any size limits. The anti-Wal-Mart group, which has called itself Sprawl-Busters, says it supports development that supports local producers, encourages small and medium size businesses and thus keeps money circulating in the community. “The money we spend in big box stores leaves our community,” says Sprawl-Busters spokesperson Vickey Brown, in an interview in The Voice newspaper. “The money we spend with locally owned businesses is recirculated in a variety of ways..We can let developers with their corporate interests in mind plan our cities and towns, or we can be proactive in planning development that works for us.”
The most intriguing statement to come out of the Courtenay, BC debate thus far is that attributed to City Councilor Doug Bell, who said: “I would prefer they (Wal-Mart) not be in my town, but it’s not for me to say. I know they make it tough for small business, but in the long run those small stores revitalize themselves.” I personally think the “glass bubble” theory is more realistic.