On April 29, 2008 Sprawl-Busters narrated the story of Wal-Mart’s plan to build a superstore in the community of Muskego, Wisconsin. There are 13 Wal-Marts within twenty miles of Muskego — three of them are supercenters. A resident in Muskego can drive to a supercenter in Mukwonago less than 10 miles away. A superstore project is on hold in Waukesha, just 8 miles away. There’s a Wal-Mart discount store in New Berlin only 5 miles away. The community of Muskego is saturated with options for cheap, Chinese imports. News that a Wal-Mart superstore was in the works ignited a strong community backlash among the 22,800 residents of Muskego. An anti-Wal-Mart citizens group was formed, called Muskego First, and the group held an organizational meeting this week, the night before the town had its own Plan Commission meeting. The 154,600 s.f. superstore would be located near South Moorland Road and West College Avenue. If a superstore in Muskego is built, it hastens the day when nearby Wal-Mart discount stores in places like New Berlin, Greenfield and Franklin will close, or expand. If the Waukesha supercenter is ever built, it will be roughly 9 miles from Muskego. When the Plan Commission met this week to review the plan, they were not alone. An estimated 200 local residents filled the hearing room. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel described the hearing as “contentious.” At one point during the two hour meeting, members of Muskego First left when their attorney, Ed Garvey of Madison,Wisconsin, was escorted out of the room by Muskego police, at the order of Muskego Mayor John Johnson, who said the lawyer’s questions were disrupting the hearing. Johnson was the former police chief in Muskego. Commissioners seemed to be in too much of a hurry to approve the plan to allow the facts to get in the way. The Commission said it wanted to review the project in six months to see if its 24/7 hours were a problem for local residents. The Journal-Sentinel printed Wal-Mart’s assertion that the new store would “bring 320 jobs to the area,” which is completely unsubstantiated. Many of the “new” jobs claimed by Wal-Mart will offset jobs lost at existing merchants, especially area grocery stores. The likely job change will be negligible. Mayor Johnson had to repeatedly chastise his constituents for their comments during the “raucus” hearing, the newspaper reported. In the end, only one Plan Commissioner, Jerald Hulbert, voted against the plan, citing his concerns with approving an all-night operation. Alderman Noah Fiedler suggested that Wal-Mart should be allowed to remain open all night. “If they screw it up, we’ll hear about it,” Fiedler was quoted as saying. Muskego First challenged the proposal on grounds of traffic impacts, noise, increased crime, and adverse environmental impacts. “This development is out of size and out of scope for our community,” said John Walters, one of the founders of Muskego First. His group charged that the Mayor’s atttitude reflected a ‘done deal’ mentality about the project. This was the Plan Commission’s second meeting on the proposal. “They answered virtually every concern the Plan Commission had last time and then some,” the Mayor told the newspaper. Now the project moves for a final vote of the Common Council, where the Mayor has already biased his vote by coming out so vocally in favor of the plan before the Plan Commission hearing process was over.
Many of the changes requested by the Muskego Plan Commission were minor cosmetic changes, akin to dressing up the Frankenstein monster in a tuxdeo: it’s still a monster. The Commission asked Wal-Mart the vary the height of its roofline to make it appear this was not a big box, and to use different building colors and textures. A retaining wall — always a dead giveaway that this is an objectionable neighbor — was approved from 8 to 12 feet high along the rear of the store. “It’s one of the nicest Wal-Marts I’ve ever seen,” the Journal-Sentinel quoted one resident as saying. Common Council will only have to approve the developer’s agreement for the overall site, which the Mayor said was a “routine thing.” To accommodate the Wal-Mart, the Common Council has already voted to rezone the land to a business district that allows for larger commercial structures, because the zoning as Wal-Mart found it did not allow retail stores over 20,000 s.f. After the hearing, the Mayor told the media that “The building of this thing is probably at least a year out.” But if angry Muskego residents challenged the project in court, it could be a long time before this “nice Wal-Mart” is ever started.
Mayor John R. Johnson, a retired Muskego Police Chief, promised voters he would support development so that residents bear less of the local tax burden. The city has been working for 8 years to develop a commercial property known as the Parkland Mall in the heart of its downtown, trying to create a mixed-use project that would be “a catalyst for the formation of a distinct, unique downtown for Muskego,” according to the Mayor. In January, 2008, the Mayor’s Task Force on Economic Development recommended a major focus on ways to make their downtown a destination, to attract anchor businesses downtown, and to develop a downtown marketing plan. Readers are urged to email Mayor Johnson at: [email protected] with the following message: “Mayor Johnson, Muskego is currently surrounded by 13 Wal-Marts within 20 miles. Muskego does not need more suburban sprawl — especially as you continue to revitalize the Parkland Mall. Putting a huge superstore on the edge of the city makes no sense alongside the recommendations from your Task Force on Economic Development, which seeks to keep existing merchants from leaving the city. If you want a unique downtown as a destination, you don’t approve a superstore the size of three football fields on South Moorland. Build your downtown, but not by forcing it to compete with a Wal-Mart. And if you really care about Muskego’s tax rate, don’t let any big box stay open all night. Your crime rate will spike, and the neighbors will have to put up with the noise and the light glare. A store with all those Chinese imports behind a 12 foot wall, suggests that this store ought to be called The Great Wal Of China. All you’ve succeeded in doing is alienating a lot of your voters, for a company that comes and goes at will.”