Sprawl-Busters has written for years that one of the most dangerous places in America is a Wal-Mart parking lot. A superstore attracts more than shoppers. For criminals, Wal-Marts are a crowded, impersonal target, with easy access to the highway. Crimes at Wal-Mart range from check forgery to murder and rape. Parking lot crime is not a subject the retailer likes to talk about, but will have to in a case now pending in Canada. Citizens opposed to a proposed supercenter in Port Elgin, Ontario, have appealed the town’s approval of the Wal-Mart to the Ontario Municipal Board, and the safety of shoppers — especially women shoppers — is a planning issue key in their case. The Toronto Star called it “a Wal-Mart fight with a twist.” “This isn’t a Wal-Mart issue,” the lawyer for Friends of Saugeen Shores, told the newspaper. “It’s a big-box development issue.” The Friends are presenting their case this week before the OMB, in an attempt to stop the superstore. The project is located right next to Saugeen Acres, a trailer park on the southern edge of the town. Wal-Mart has been systematically shutting down its existing Woolco stores, which it purchased in the 1990s, and replacing them with larger, more profitable superstores. The hearing began in August, and was originally slated to last around five days. But now the OMB is expected to take testimony over a total of 15 days. OMB Chairperson Susan Shiller has now scheduled an extra four weeks of witnesses booked for the hearing. The town of Port Elgin approved the Wal-Mart, on the anticipation that a larger store would bring more jobs and revenues to the town. The Friends have focused their case on traffic issues, and the impact on shopper’s safety as well. Women’s safety, or what the Star called “the safety of marginalized women,” is the novel attack being raised by opponents. “It’s a growing area, but until now it hasn’t been enforceable,” University of Ottawa politics professor Caroline Andrew told the Star. Andrews is a witness at the OMB hearing. The Friends group says Port Elgin should not develop projects that will be dangerous to its patrons, and that this is a legitimate planning issue to raise. The appeal has cost Wal-Mart millions of dollars in lost sales. The superstore was to have opened by early 2007, but now is many months behind schedule. The Friends of Saugeen Shores has argued that the proposed Wal-Mart will attract some of the most vulnerable women in Canadian society — both as shoppers and employees. “You’ve got vulnerable people being put into an even more vulnerable position,” she says. The group says large parking lots are the issue: they are dangerous places, especially at night. The group introduced a crime study produced by the American group, Wake Up Wal-Mart, which catalogued hundreds of thousands of police incidents at Wal-Mart stores. The developer has responded to these charges by saying the OMB should not consider the issue of personal safety at a planning level. “One cannot protect against all human actions,” a spokesman for the developer said in an affidavit to the OMB, “some of which may appear to be unwise,” The Friends argue that the community of Port Elgin has a responsibility to protect its citizens from potential dangers — including proposals that would put local residents in danger. Opponents have asked the OMB to force the developers to do a full audit of safety issues at the site, including recommendations for changing the site’s layout to make it safer for shoppers. Wal-Mart has already presented such an audit, but the Friends charge that the retailer failed to talk to local women or native groups. Their audit was based on visits to other area Wal-Marts, to analyse how they are laid out and to study the crime levels at those other locations. The Port Elgin site plan includes several trees and fences that shield the parking lot from its neighbors. A bike and walking trail across the back of the parking lot, will also be obscured. Officials from the County of Bruce have testified in favor of the store, noting that ‘safety audits’ have never been required before — and should be left to the local site plan review process at the municipal level.
According to The Star, Port Elgin has lost many of its higher-paying industrial jobs, and the town is riddled with empty lots, an abandoned rail line and a struggling economy. The town is pinning its hopes on the growing tourism industry. Wal-Mart has hired a planner to tell the OMB that a superstore will help stop “leakage” of retail sales out of Port Elgin, and will thus help businesses, rather than destroy them. There is ample evidence throughout the U.S., that most of Wal-Mart’s sales are “captured” from existing merchants, and that promises of “new” jobs are over-stated. The issue of crime at Wal-Mart has been raised at hundreds of public hearings in the United States — but it is not seen as a way to stop a project. In Port Elgin, opponents appear to believe that if the redesigns needed to make the store safer for shoppers and employees cost too much, that the developer will abandon the project. If the OMB agrees that communities have the right to insist on project designs that protect public safety, the requirements on the developer may not amount to major additional costs. But opponents have already scored a victory by slowing down the project, and their fight will embolden other groups in Ontario to oppose such ill-advised development. Regardless of the OMB decision in Port Elgin, the issue of crime at Wal-Mart will become an increasing problem for the giant retailer. If this project goes forward, it will literally be a crime.