There isn’t one good reason to have two Wal-Mart supercenters four miles apart, and the residents of Great Falls, Montana understand that. Residents in Great Falls reported this week to Sprawl-busters the following update: “Local citizens prevailed and convinced Great Falls City Planning Board NOT to approve zoning annexation for a Wal-Mart supercenter, but we’ve only won a skirmish, and the board now sends its recommendation to City Council for the next review. I’m sure the Wal-Mart Big Shots will be there again. They offered fancy traffic and transportation analysis, but NOTHING (and city didn’t either) regarding the economic impact, ‘Cost Benefit’ analysis…citizens of ALL ages and backgrounds exhibited courage and spoke against yet another Wal-Mart in our town, where we have a Sam’s Club and Supercenter already in a town of 60,000.” According to the Great Falls Tribune, Wal-Mart is asking the city to annex almost 50 acres into the city limits. Wal-Mart plans to build a 203,000-square-foot Supercenter. The annexation vote was defeated on a 4-4 tie vote. Wal-Mart was given two hours to drone on about the benefits of having two supercenters within spitting distance of each other. City Planners recommended the annexation, supporting the sprawling of city infrastructure outside of the city as a catalyst for more development. One resident stood up and told the crowd of about 75 people, without embarrassment, “I shop at Wal-Mart all the time and I’d like to be able to that without driving across town.” One former pharmacist who worked for Wal-Mart told the Planning Board, “Wal-Mart is a predatory corporation that will hurt local companies that pay working wages with real insurance benefits. More people will be on Medicaid if a second Wal-Mart opens here.” The stumbling block for Wal-Mart, however, was a provision in the city’s zoning code that requires any retail store larger than 60,000 s.f. to get a conditional use permit. Part of the CUP review process requires the Planning Board to support the statement that “The diverse retail economy is desirable in that it provides consumer choice and fosters competition.” The tie vote means the City Council gets a negative recommendation from the Planning Board.
Great Falls residents will have to keep the heat on, because City Councils show no hesitation to reject the recommendation of their own Planning Board, unless citizens keep their feet to the fire. Annexation cannot be arbitrary or capricious. It has to be done to further the health, safety and welfare of the city’s residents. In this case, over development will hurt the existing tax base, by forcing more local stores to go under. The city removed an economic impact study requirement from its zoning code, but the impact of saturating stores this closely should be clear. “We became our own competition,” Sam Walton explained in his autobiography. Once that happens, everyday low prices don’t have to be low anymore. If a second superstore comes, the City Council should change the name of the city to Wal-Mart Falls. Wal-Mart is not the beginning of competition in your hometown, it is the beginning of the end of competition.