You can find all the fruit you want at Wal-Mart, but don’t look for sour grapes. That’s the word from Wal-Mart’s attorney in Athens, Georgia, while trying to explain a letter the company sent to Clarke County Commissioners. In the Wal-Mart letter, dated 3 days before Christmas, the company’s Real Estate Manager for Georgia and South Carolina tells county officials that if they don’t rezone land for a superstore in Athens, Georgia, that Wal-Mart has “identified several sites in Oconee County that meet Wal-Mart’s site selection requirements”. The letter goes on to say that Wal-Mart has already operated a store in Athens for nine years, but that the store they built (way back in 1990) is now “significantly undersized for our current store prototype, and after extensive research, we have determined that the (current) store cannot be expanded.” The company then flatly warns the Commissioners “unfortunately, our only option if the rezoning is denied is to begin the approval process for one of the sites in Oconee County. This would allow us to close the Athens store and open the Oconee County store during the first half of 2001.” Although some residents of Athens might have considered this two paragraph letter as intimidation tactics at its crudest, Wal-Mart’s lawyer made it clear. “Wal-Mart has been very candid with the community about its plans if this development is not approved,” attorney Mike Morris wrote in an Online Athens editorial. “Their alternate location is not in Athens-Clarke County. This is not sour grapes on their part, but simply the lack of suitable alternate locations in our county.” And in case readers still didn’t get the picture, the lawyer added:”The relocation of Wal-Mart to an adjoining county would be the worst of all worlds for our county. Customers would still use our roads to get to and from the store, but all tax generated would go to the county where it is located.” But would a Wal-Mart abandonment be the worst of all worlds? Not according to the High Ridge Home Owners Association, which is fighting the rezoning of land along Atlanta Highway. The Association has issued a report that suggests if Wal-Mart said sour grapes to Athens, and left the county, leaving the parcel in question to be used for apartments, as currently zoned, the net loss in property and sales taxes would amount to less than three-tenths of 1% of the combined budgets of Athens and Clarke County. Even if Wal-Mart picked up its marbles and no apartments were built, the average household in Athens would pay a little more than $2.00 a month to make up the tax difference. “This lost revenue is negligible,” says the Homeowners Association, “when compared to the negative effect the approval of the rezoning will have on the quality of life in the Classic City”. According to local assessors, 360 apartment units on the 42 acre site would generate more than twice as much property taxes as Wal-Mart. And the apartments would not kill off any existing merchants in town, or displace sales at other cash registers. To further cement the deal, Wal-Mart’s lawyer claims the Athens Wal-Mart “will be one of the most attractive, heavily landscaped commercial outlets on Atlanta Highway…”. In fact, the Wal-Mart lawyer says the superstore “will be virtually unseen” from the highway. This is what Wal-Mart told residents of North Elba, NY shortly before the Planning Board in that town turned down the “invisible” Wal-Mart. For many good citizens in Athens, one Wal-Mart is one more than enough, and the worst of all possible worlds would be to see Wal-Mart add their current Athens store to the company’s list of over 300 empty stores now available for lease or sale.
In California, the idea of one town being used to play off another town for large scale developments got so bad, that the Governor recently signed into law a statute that requires any town that creates incentives to lure away another town’s existing mall, to share growth revenue from the mall with its neighboring town for the next decade. Wal-Mart is very “candid” in using neighboring Oconee County to pressure Clarke County officials to do Wal-Mart’s bidding. Such intimidation makes a joke of local zoning laws. The land Wal-Mart wants is not zoned for commercial retail. It’s not sour grapes — it’s just zoned incorrectly. What would Athens officials have done if Wal-Mart had been truly candid with the city and said back in 1990: “We’re going to build a store in a shopping mall, and nine years later we’re going to leave it. And if we need land that’s not properly zoned at that time, and you don’t give us what we want, we’re going to the next county over.” Some residents might have said: “good riddance to companies like Wal-Mart that bargain with us like we are simply pins on a corporate map”. This is what Wal-Mart did recently in Taos, NM (see below), when Wal-Mart announced it was leaving town because residents voted in a law limiting the size of superstores. And JDN, the developer in this case, made headlines in Charlotte, NC when it offered to pay abuttors $40,000 each if they would drop their objection to a Wal-Mart project. In Rockland, ME, Wal-Mart was equally candid with residents. Their Real Estate Manager made it clear that Wal-Mart had a “Plan B” (see story below) if the town did not let them build a bigger store across the street from their existing store, only 7 years old. Plan B meant leaving town for the next community down the road. And this bizarre concept of “undersized” stores not meeting their “current store prototype”, one public official in Milford, DE had the nerve to say publicly: “I don’t necessarily believe bigger is better.” The fact is, Wal-Mart needs a bigger store in Athens solely for its own corporate convenience. Athens has a full supply of grocery stores, and should not feel compelled to turn its zoning code upside down just so Wal-Mart can close one store and gain more market share with a bigger one. At some point, local residents begin to realize that that awful smell in the air arouond Athens is nothing more than the smell of some very sour grapes over at Wal-Mart.