With all the rapacious developers out there, why do we need publicly-supported institutions of higher education using their resources to foist Wal-Marts on an unwilling community? We have described in earlier newsflashes the battles over “university” Wal-Marts in Athens, Ohio (see 4/20/99 entry) and in Commerce, Texas (see 10/31/98). Ohio University and Texas A&M are just examples of schools selling their land to build Wal-Marts. Now add the case of West Virginia University to the list. The WVU Foundation in Morgantown, WV was willed 45 acres of land to use for scholarships. The Foundation accepted the land and then offered it to a developer, who in turn assigned the option on the land over to Wal-Mart. Now residents of Morgantown and the surrounding Monongalia County are urging the university to do some more homework on the project. Because the proposed Wal-Mart superstore is outside the Morgantown city limits, many city residents feel the extra traffic on already congested Route 705 would amount to a “nightmare” with nothing positive for Morgantown. The city already has a nearby Super Kmart and a Wal-Mart discount store at Mountaineer Mall, and Wal-Mart has fervently insisted that this store will not close — as so many others nationwide have — if the supercenter is opened nearby. “Morgantown can handle two Wal-Marts,” the company told the Dominion Post. But more than 300 empty discount Wal-Mart stores are on the market today, most of them shut down to make way for a superstore. The existing Wal-Mart is 126,000 s.f., and the new superstore plan calls for another 204,184 s.f. The supercenter would be located along a roadway that now carries 22,000 cars per day, and estimated to grow 23% by the year 2020. Route 705 is a restricted access highway now, and Wal-Mart’s project depends on state Department of Highway approval for access to the highway. No access, no land deal. Wal-Mart has tried to turn a sour attitude in the city towards the superstore sweeter by offering to pay $1 million in roadway improvements. But local opposition continues to mount. Four state lawmakers have offered a House Resolution urging state highway officials to leave Route 705 a controlled access road. One County Commissioner has warned that the Wal-Mart will require 25 tractor trailers a day to keep stocked. Wal-Mart had pleaded with Morgantown and County residents not to form an opinion until Wal-Mart’s traffic study was released. “Why would you have an opinion without having seen the traffic study if traffic is your big concern?” asked one Wal-Mart official. But when the traffic study came out, it reached the same conclusion that all Wal-Mart traffic consultants reach: just widen a few roads, signalize an intersection, add a couple of turn lanes, restripe the road — and everything will flow smoothly! But lawmakers continue to dog the project. “All of us have been getting a lot of calls and letters from the Neighborhood Assocation, from the County Commission,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer. “I would say I have had uniformly negative comments and an enormous amount of anxiety and frustration and anger over the thought of changing 705 from being limited access and putting that Super Wal-Mart in there.” Residents are worried that Wal-Mart traffic will block access to the two major hospitals in the area. The House Resolution being offered against Wal-Mart is just a sense of the legislature, and does not carry the weight of law — but it could have an impact on the DOH decision on granting access to the highway. There are now dueling petitions circulating in the area: one sponsored by the Monongalia County Commission opposed to Wal-Mart, and a second pro-superstore located, of course, at the existing Wal-Mart discount store in the mall. Finally, the University’s key role in pushing this retail behemoth has triggered a faculty insurrection on campus. At a Faculty Senate meeting last month, Bill Wonderlin, an Associate Professor in the University’s School of Medicine, charged that the Foundation has “no good argument to sell (the land) to Wal-Mart.” Wonderlin used Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover email between the Wal-Mart developer and the University President’s office, in which the developer instructed the school how to lobby state highway officials. “It is very disturbing to me,” Wonderlin said, “that the development company is telling the University how to write a letter. I’m not opposed to the Foundation’s selling the property for scholarship funds,” he told the Athenaeum newspaper, “but I am opposed to the devastating impact of bringing in a Wal-Mart. We’re the ones living there. Wal-Mart will only lead to development and sprawl.” The City Council has voted to urge landowners outside the city, like WVU, to consider how the land is being used, and to make their developments compatible. As one resident said, the Wal-Mart issue goes beyond traffic and roads. “We’re talking about neighborhoods. We’re talking about community. The quality of life is the big thing.” Wal-Mart may be a “big thing”, but they don’t sell small town quality of life on any shelf.
Wal-Mart says that the Morgantown market is “large enough to support two (Wal-Marts)”. But is it? Many residents point out that the city has been investing tax dollars in a Main Street program to foster downtown business activity, and that a Wal-Mart on the highway will only drain more revenue from the downtown. Wal-Mart says no. “Downtown Morgantown is what it is today for a specific reason,” Wal-Mart told reporters, “specialty shops downtown that deal in things you can’t find a Wal-Mart.” That’s hardly the definition of what residents want a downtown to be. Wal-Mart often claims to be a retail “magnet”, yet economic impact studies show just the opposite. Wal-Mart often does nothing to boost sales downtown. After all, Wal-Mart boasts it is “one stop shopping”, and so it makes no sense to also claim it creates spin off activity elsewhere. As the Wal-Mart TV ad concludes: “Next stop, home.” The University is a tax supported institution. WVU President David Hardesty sits prominently on the board of the WVU Foundation. So far the President’s office has lobbied for the project, but local and county residents say the President’s actions have placed the community in between a Wal-Mart and a Hardesty. For more details, or to help in the Morgantown battle, contact the Citizens for Responsible Development at 304-599-2938.