East is not west, and Wal-Mart won’t settle for west when east is what they want. But now the endgame for Wal-Mart Canada is approaching in the city of Stratford, Ontario, where the battle comes down to eastside versus westside. On November 30, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that anti-Wal-Mart activists in Stratford, Ontario had good news to share. Wal-Mart Canada, after three years of resistance and outright rejection, was still trying to push its way into the city of Stratford. Stratford is a unique Victorian city of about 32,000 people in Mid-western Ontario. Its major industries are automotive parts manufacturing and four theatres owned and operated by the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. The downtown is surviving, but there are some empty stores. Stratford has a retail development in the east end of the city on a major east-west highway, comprising a Zeller’s (a Canadian version of Target), Sears, Canadian Tire, Winners and a number of other smaller retailers, located in two shopping centers across the road from each other. There is a 36 acre site behind the one shopping centre that is zoned industrial that was purchased by First Pro, the developer for Wal-Mart. The Senior Vice President of First Pro is Allan Scully. The present zoning would allow for a building supply center such as Home Depot. There are two existing Wal-Marts and a scheduled superstore within 25 miles of Stratford. On the advice of its consultants, the City had prepared Official Plan Amendment 10, which would reinforce the present zoning and legislate the consultants’ recommendations of requiring future retail development to locate in the west end of the city. Under a thinly veiled threat of taking the city to the Ontario Municipal Board, FirstPro managed to get a deferral on passing OPA 10. That was in February 2004. On June 28, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that a Canadian citizens group in Stratford was reaching out for help to stop this proposed Wal-Mart project. The group Stratford First wrote: “We are writing to solicit your support in our campaign against Wal-Mart and its developer First Pro. First Pro acquired a 64-acre parcel of land in the east end of this city. The parcel has been zoned industrial for many years. The city commissioned a study by Robin Dee & Associates which concluded that the arrival of another big box store would seriously harm the other retailers in Stratford. It further concluded that if we could not stop the arrival of a big box store, we should insist that it locate in a vacant industrial site downtown or at a site in the west end of the city.” On October 19, 2007, we reported that the 112,000 s.f. Wal-Mart project came before local officials for a vote. More than 100 anti-Wal-Mart protestors were there, wearing t-shirts that read, “Roll Back Wal-Mart.” One opponent told the local newspaper, “They don’t need our money and I know we don’t need them. I just don’t want them anywhere near Stratford. If you have a chance to fight them off, I guess you take that opportunity.” The city’s planning and heritage committee voted 7-4 to keep Official Plan Amendment 10 as is. Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson, who had been careful not to reveal his position on the subject, ultimately was the 7th vote against the project. “I waited it out,” he told the media, “and looked at the expert reports and made sure every piece of information available was taken into consideration. Everyone had the opportunity over three years to review expert information, to attend public meetings and to hear all sides,” he said. “People thought we were slow, but at the end of today, at the last public meeting, we were able to make the best decision that affects the future vision of the city.” When the Council voted to deny First Pro’s application, the developer took the matter to the Ontario Municipal Board. Stratford First, produced more than 3,000 signed cards opposed to this development. The City Centre group, representing downtown retailers, is also strongly opposed. There have been two more consultants’ reports tabled since then that bluntly describe First Pro’s reports as “misleading”. The Stratford Council scheduled a meeting scheduled for November 26, 2008 to reconsider the whole issue. Steve Landers from Stratford First, filed the following report with Sprawl-Busters on the following day: “We had another council meeting in Stratford last night. Council voted 7-4 in favor of retaining the existing zoning under Official Plan Amendment 10. This rejects the Wal-Mart application for a change in zoning on property in the East End, so the whole matter will now go to the Ontario Municipal Board in January, 2009. Even prior to the meeting, a volunteer had printed sticky labels with ‘Support OPA 10’ and handed them out to people on the way in. Most people stuck them to their coats. The City Hall Auditorium was packed, with standing room only. Of the 16 people slated to speak, only one was in favor of the Wal-Mart application. The meeting began with presentations by two consultants, Warren Sorensen and Robin Dee, who both stated that Wal-Mart could locate in the West End with no ill effects to its revenue, rather than in the East End. Then Allan Scully, representing the developer, described how his company was dedicated to Stratford, and that it would be spending $40 million on construction, and that Wal-Mart would hire 400 people and pay property taxes of $1.5 million. He also mentioned that he had contacted Wal-Mart and that they wouldn’t locate in the West End. One of the speakers took photos of the vacant stores in downtown Stratford, and had her friends hold up mounted full-color enlargements. Her comment: ‘These are the twenty-one vacant stores in downtown. Right now. Tonight.’ The most eloquent presentation came from a single mother on welfare. She described how she loved the life-style in Stratford, in spite of the financial struggles she faced raising her little girl. She ended with: ‘I want my daughter to remember walks along the river feeding the ducks, rather than the cheap toilet paper at Wal-Mart.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the place, and she got a standing ovation.” This week, as an update, CTV reports that the Ontario Municipal Board has begun to hear the Stratford/Wal-Mart case. The case is expected to last 35 days over the next eight weeks, so a decision in the case should be made by late March. The city has held firm its desire to reject a big box store on the east end, preferring that the store be on the city’s expanding west end. But Wal-Mart must have the east.
Readers are urged to email the Mayor and Council in the City of Stratford by going to their website: www.city.stratford.on.ca. Send them the following message: “Dear Members of the Stratford City Council, Congratulations on your continuing battle to keep industrial land in Stratford zoned for industrial purposes. Stand up to First Pro at the OMB. The developer has no right to a rezoning of this land. Thank you for once again voting against this Wal-Mart project, and I hope the full Council will urge First Pro to either look to the location on the west end of the city, or darken some other community’s door. There simply is no market need for an additional Wal-Mart in the Stratford trade area. Wal-Mart brings neither jobs nor revenue to Stratford, and will undermine your efforts to strengthen the downtown. I believe that the city will prevail at the OMB level, and that First Pro and Wal-Mart will have wasted more than three years trying to locate where citizens don’t want them to be. A good corporate citizen would have moved on by now, but Wal-Mart does not leave unless it is forced to leave. Your city council did not cave into Wal-Mart’s legal pressure, and you put the needs of Stratford residents first. If Wal-Mart won’t settle for the west, let them pack their bags and go.”