Since the spring of 2004, activists in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, population 11,300, have been fighting a major retail development in their community anchored by a Wal-Mart superstore. After six years of holding the so-called Dowling Village project at bay, it looks like residents are getting a timely assist from the Mayor of a neighboring town.
Despite its name, this Wal-Mart project is hardly a ‘village.’ This 136.5 acre project includes a residential component, and 591,562 s.f. of retail stores, plus another 95,800 s.f. of chain restaurants and office space. It’s by far the largest retail complex in the history of this small town.
For many years, the developer, Bucci Development, has refused to identify its tenants, presenting this massive project in footprint size, with no names. Bucci denied published reports that a Wal-Mart supercenter is lurking inside Dowling Village. Activist Caroly Shumway, the president of the Valley Alliance for Smart Growth, charged that the 185,000 s.f. footprint in the project is a Wal-Mart superstore, and that the developer already had a signed agreement with the Arkansas-based retailer. Her charge was substantiated by the town’s former planner, who agreed it’s a Wal-Mart — but says it would not be a supercenter.
Bucci’s lawyer accused Shumway of using “scare tactics.” “Once again Caroly Shumway is wrong,” said the Bucci spokesman. “She is an extremist, alarmist, self-seeking, she’s trying to scare the community by saying we have signed leases with two national tenants and she’s wrong. We have none; we don’t even have final approval.” In response, Shumway noted, “We know for a fact that it’s a Lowe’s and a super Wal-Mart.”
Shumway pointed out that one of the engineering consultants admitted that Lowe’s was a tenant last spring. “As to the super Wal-Mart,” Shumway told the Breeze, “we have heard this directly from our town planner. Al Norman, our fiscal reviewer, concurred it was a Wal-Mart.”
North Smithfield’s planner told the newspaper that the 185,000 s.f. building 10 “appears to be a Wal-Mart but I don’t believe it’s a super Wal-Mart.” The planner said that Bucci’s plans have suggested to him that the plan is “for a Wal-Mart/Target.” The developer focused on the status of the agreement with Wal-Mart — not on whether it was a Wal-Mart on not.
“It’s been the Bucci company’s long-standing policy not to comment on prospective tenants when there are no leases signed,” the developer’s spokesman said. “We are in discussions with several national tenants.”
This week Dowling Village took an interesting turn. According to The Call newspaper, the Mayor of neighboring Woonsocket, Rhode Island is threatening to withhold water from the project site, forcing Wal-Mart to die of thirst. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine says he will block water service to North Smithfield’s Dowling Village if Bucci signs a tenant agreement with Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart still has kept its silence on the project, but Woonsocket officials believe that if Wal-Mart comes to Dowling Village, his city will have a dead Wal-Mart store #2225 on its hands on Diamond Hill Road.
Mayor Fontaine says that the city has no current water services agreement with Bucci Development, and the Mayor asked the city’s lawyer to let Bucci know that there is no such agreement in place. “Clearly they’re moving forward on the assumption that there is an agreement,” Mayor Fontaine told The Call. “But we’re not just going to sit back and watch when someone’s raiding our kitchen and give them the keys to the pantry.”
North Smithfield officials admitted recently that Wal-Mart had, in fact, filed for permits for a 155,000 s.f. store in Dowling Village — just three miles from the Woonsocket Wal-Mart store. The store in Woonsocket has been expanded to 120,000 s.f., and the retailer has filed plans to enlarge the store another 30% — but Woonsocket officials fear they will be left holding the bag if Dowling Village ever is built.
Woonsocket’s Planning Director has been unable to get Wal-Mart to reveal what they plan to do with Woonsocket store #2225. Woonsocket officials say that Wal-Mart’s unwillingness to even talk about the Woonsocket facility suggests that the retailer is using Woonsocket at a back-up, in case Dowling Village is defeated by opponents to the project.
“They have been very evasive and non-committal,” said Woonsocket’s Planning Director. “We’re not marketing experts, but it would seem very likely once the new Wal-Mart is open that there will be a decision to close the store in Woonsocket, leaving us with an empty building in a major commercial area.”
The Mayor complains that the city invested a lot of staff time and resources helping Wal-Mart expand their Diamond Hill Road store. The city sold Wal-Mart 6 additional acres of recreation land for the project, and has spent several years in court fighting Woonsocket homeowners who are still fighting the expansion. “I and other city officials went out on a limb on a very unpopular project because we felt it was the right thing to do,” the Mayor noted.
Mayor Fontaine claims that a former Mayor in Woonsocket had negotiated a water agreement with Bucci — but that agreement was never ratified by the City Council, and therefore has no legal standing. At one point early in the plan for Dowling Village, there was an annex located on Woonsocket land, and a plan that would have allowed Wal-Mart and other retailers not to pay any sales tax at the Dowling Village site. But that agreement was never signed.
Bucci Development says it is not concerned about the Mayor’s threats to withhold water. “We are 100 percent certain we have permission to use water based on contracts that were duly entered by the city and we relied on them in good faith,” Bucci’s lawyer told The Call. “Matter of fact, we already have water. It’s being used by CVS right now. These contracts are valid and binding and they’ve been in full force and effect for over three years.”
Bucci Development and Wal-Mart are trying to defuse the confronation by having a meeting with Mayor Fontaine. A spokesman for North Smithfield said the town is trying to work out a deal with the Woonsocket Mayor that will settle all concerns. “We’re going to try to work together to make sure both communities fare well on this issue,” the North Smithfield spokeswoman said. “If Woonsocket has some specific issues with the development, I’m confident we’ll be able to work it out and move forward.”
The Valley Alliance for Smart Growth has fought Dowing Village for roughly six years, spending money out of their own pockets to fend off this massive plan. It’s been an expensive and time-consuming project for Caroly Shumway.
“This project cannot hide from the facts,” Shumway has said, “as much as they desperately try to deflect the issues.” The Valley Alliance says the issue is that Dowling Village will put local merchants out of business, and will generate significant traffic problems for the town, as well as increased public safety costs.
The logo on the building does not really matter to the Valley Alliance, which has vowed to fight the store and kill the project. So far, the group has done a remarkable job of slowing down progress on the over-scaled project.
The Mayor of Woonsocket realizes the harm this project will do to the city, making Woonsocket another city that “Wal-Mart has killed twice” — once on the way in, and again on the way out.
Readers are urged to email Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Fontaine, You are right to challenge Bucci Development over water issues at Dowling Village. It doesn’t take a psychic to predict what will happen to the Wal-Mart on Diamond Hill Road. Wal-Mart has closed down hundreds of ‘smaller’ stores when the huge superstores open — and you will be left with a ‘dark store’ to fill. That will not be easy, given the fact that very few businesses want a store that big, especially with the upgrades and maintenance costs needed.
Wal-Mart has been using Woonsocket as a fallback in case Dowling Village falls of its own weight. Opponents in North Smithfield have no intention of giving up — and it’s in Woonsocket’s best interest if they win.
Wal-Mart has abandoned so many stores that communities on the losing end of a store closing are known as “towns that Wal-Mart killed twice,” once going in, and once going out. You politically helped clear the way for Wal-Mart’s expansion in Woonsocket, and now they will leave you to move a few miles away.
This may be a bitter lesson about corporate politics — but you are right to use whatever cards you have to make them stand by their commitment to Woonsocket. The other thing you should do immediately is pass a surety bond requirement which forces any property owner of a facility greater than 100,000 s.f. to put up a demolition bond to cover the costs of razing their building if it sits empty for more than 12 consecutive months. You can adopt this ordinance at any time, and make it apply generally to large businesses. It will save you, and your taxpayers, a lot of time, money, and aggravation.”