This is how battles over Wal-Mart begin. It starts with a casual comment by a small town official, and soon it takes on a life of its own. In this case, the comment came from the town Supervisor in Fort Edward, New York, which is a small community with a long history dating back to 1755. The town is located on Route 4, the main corridor from Interstate 87 to Vermont. The Native Americans called this place Wahcoloosencoochaleva, which means “the Great Carrying Place,” because at this point on the river, rapids and falls made further travel by water to the north impossible. The Indians would leave the Hudson River, and carry their canoes to the headwaters of Lake Champlain. The town has kept the motto, “The Great Carrying Place.” In 2006, the town’s population was only 6,063 — fewer than its 1990 population of 6,330. The town markets its historic heritage, and reminders of that history are found in the old buildings that line the streets, and the old and new canal. The town is now busy renovating its historic train station. Fort Edward is also surrounded by Wal-Marts. There is a superstore in Queensbury, New York 7 miles away, and another in Saratoga Springs, New York, 14 miles away. In this historic town, which has a village within its borders, came the prospect of suburban sprawl, because of the brief comments of the town’s Supervisor, Mitch Suprenant. The Supervisor made headlines this week in the Glens Falls Post Star newspaper when he suggested that a Wal-Mart or other big-box store would greatly benefit Fort Edward’s tax base. “We need the sales tax revenue,” Suprenant said during an informal break at the Washington County Board of Supervisors meeting several days ago. “We have the manufacturing jobs, but we need the sales tax coming back to us.” Fort Edwards has two industrial parks with several large and small industries in them. The Irving Tissue Company, and General Electric both have plants in town. “Even though you don’t have the population here, you have people coming here everyday,” Suprenant said. According to the Post Star, the Supervisor has written to the Washington County Economic Development Corporation to bring another Wal-Mart to the area. But the head of the EDC, Mark Galough, doesn’t think the population base in “The Great Carrying Place” is enough to carry another supercenter. Galough says national chains might not be a good fit for Fort Edward. “Stores like that tend to be interested in populations, target populations that would obviously frequent their store. The larger the store, the larger the population is necessary to support that store.” Given Wal-Mart’s concern this past year over its voracious ‘cannibalization’ of sales at its own stores, the retailer might be reluctant to squeeze another one in so close to two others. But this is how the battle begins.
Supervisor Suprenant shares his economic development theories in the town’s Spring newsletter. “Our quality of life can help attract new enterprises,” the Supervisor explains, “which results in economic development which can improve our tax base which eases taxes and improves our quality of life. We need to ensure that our zoning and planning guidelines are reasonable while ensuring public safety and that our stated goal is to stimulate private (taxable) ownership to help lighten the overall burden. Our businesses, large and small, are the backbone of our quality of life and we must find ways to stimulate growth in a positive fashion. There are many empty storefronts that need entrepreneurial investment and creativity. Our existent [sic]businesses are sometimes forgotten about in the process of trying to bring in new business. I am hoping we can reach out to these businesses to try to improve things for them in whatever way we can.” Readers are urged to call Supervisor Suprenant at 518-747-6563 and leave the following message: “Dear Mr. Supervisor, I am concerned over recent reports that you are lobbying to bring a Wal-Mart supercenter into your historic community. As you have properly noted, small businesses are part of the backbone of Fort Edward, and more empty storefronts and buildings do not translate into tax base growth. Residents of the town and village already have a Wal-Mart Supercenter 7 miles away in Queensbury, and your tiny population base — even with day workers — does not warrant building another huge superstore. Most of Wal-Mart’s sales will come from its own nearby supercenters, and any grocery stores serving the Fort Edward area. If you really want to support the small businesses that are “sometimes forgotten,” in your words, then throwing a supercenter into the mix is not the way to do that. You would do better to update your Master Plan and put a cap on the size of retail buildings to avoid the ugly battles that took place in Halfmoon and Saratoga Springs when Wal-Mart came to town. Look to smaller, community-based retail projects that are appropriately scaled to fit comfortably into Fort Edward. There are more than 4,000 Wal-Mart stores in America today, but only one Fort Edward. Which would you rather protect? Imagine Native Americans pulling out of the Hudson, carrying their canoes, and finding a Wal-Mart supercenter before them! That’s how incongruous this suburban sprawl is for your area. Please find a way, as you say, to “stimulate growth in a positive fashion,” not simply destroy existing jobs and businesses.”