Here’s the lead sentence from a story in the October 18, 1999 issue of the Highland News Leader: “After several months of secrecy, officials for the Wal-Mart Corporation have confirmed plans to build a superstore in Highland”. It turns out that Wal-Mart operatives have been interested in a Higland site for the past two years.”We were interested in Highland as a potential site for a superstore,” said a Wal-Mart real estate developer. “But we wanted to find a good regional location for the city which we are trying to serve”. That “good regional location” is 22 acres on the — you guessed it — outskirts of the city. In fact, the land is not only inappropriately zoned, but its not even part of Highland, and will have to be annexed. Even worse, the land in question is less than half a mile away from an existing Wal-Mart store. The plans for a 144,000 s.f. supercenter have already kicked up opposition from area residents, but city officials have been deep in discussion with an engineering firm working for Wal-Mart for many months. A project manager from the engineering firm which has been assessing the potential property, admitted to the newspaper that “one of our major functions was to talk to city officials about annexation, zoning, sewer, water, things of that nature”. How many separate meetings did this firm have on “things of that nature” with city officials? When did the official record begin on this case, and how many commitments have been made by elected officials within the shroud of secrecy that took place over that 2 year period? The City Manager says he didn’t know who wanted the land until September, when the Wal-Mart real estate developer contacted him directly. The engineering company scoping out the project also asked the city what kinds of financial incentives the city could offer Wal-Mart. “Highland has no such incentives,” the city manager told reporters. “We are an economically sound community, and we did not recruit Wal-Mart, they came to us”. But public officials apparently did not come to the citizens with that information, and now the project seems to be on a very fast track. Although the city manager admits that the huge project is “alot for the city to think about”, and that he is concerned about the impact of the project on Highland’s downtown — not to mention what will happen when Wal-Mart closes its existing store, which it has said it will do if the new one is approved. The Planning & zoning Commission is slated to hold a hearing on the project November 3rd, and then annexation and rezoning of the land could happen on the same evening as early as the November 15, 1999 City Council meeting. A four week process — after Wal-Mart took two years to work its “secret” on the city. The only people left out of the equation are the residents of Highland.
It always amazes me how much city officials know but don’t share with the taxpayers who elected them to office. If a large scale developer is meeting with city officials and looking for economic write-downs, you would think that city officials would say: Put your proposal on the table, and let’s discuss all these details through the normal zoning process. In Highland, the process has clearly been structured to allow the big retailer to seclude itself behind a developer, with the public only getting wind of the process within a few weeks before a possible final vote. Area residents are organizing now, and plan to fight the annexation of the property. A Wal-Mart on the edge of the city could undo many of the investments that have been made in the central business district of Highland. The City Manager says he believes the Wal-Mart “will also draw more people into town to shop, which will increase sales tax revenue for the city”. Such statements amount to wishful thinking, unless they are confirmed through an independent economic impact study. Because Highland already has a Wal-Mart, the supercenter only adds a grocery component to the mix, which may largely draw most of its sales from existing cash registers at other grocery stores. The net impact on Highland could be a loss of public revenues. Despite all the hush-hush surroundings in Highland, its no “secret” what big box retailers can do to the existing merchant base.For more information on the “secret” life of Wal-Mart in Highland, contact [email protected]