Wal-Mart, the supposed icon of the free market, wants a County board in Wisconsin to prevent public land surrounding its proposed store from being sold to Wal-Mart competitors for 40 years. That’s just one of the problems associatede with this mercurial proposal from the giant retailer. On May 15, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported on the off-and-on effort by Wal-Mart to build a 153,000 s.f. superstore in Spooner, Wisconsin on 35 acres of county land. This project has been in the works for three years. Spooner calls itself “the perfect Up North town.” “We are surrounded by woods, lakes, rivers and friendly people,” the city’s website says. “With a population of around 2700, Spooner is perfect for a family vacation, a fishing expedition, a permanent residence or a second home.” But local residents worry that Spooner will be surrounded by more than just “woods, lakes, rivers and friendly people.” On January 18, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that a Wal-Mart supercenter project in Spooner, Wisconsin was on hold. “There is nothing yet to report on the status of the project on Spooner,” a Wal-Mart senior manager of public affairs said in an e-mail to Spooner Mayor Louie Villella. “While no decision has been made regarding the Spooner project, I feel it’s important you know what’s driving these decisions, and that you know these decisions are shaped by Wal-Mart’s desire for a responsible and managed growth strategy. Again, there is nothing yet to report on the status of the project in Spooner, but my colleagues at Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville expect this project to be reviewed in the coming weeks. I will of course keep you informed.” Wal-Mart admitted that the Spooner Supercenter was in a “holding pattern” while the company tried to “manage our growth to insure the long-term success.” After roughly four months in limbo, Wal-Mart announced in April that under new “business parameters,” the supercenter project would proceed — on a smaller scale than originally proposed. The Washburn County Register reported that residents asked that the city council slow the process down and prepare a developer’s agreement carefully. One resident warned the Council that officials in Rice Lake, Wisconsin regretted that they had not conducted more research when they accepted a Wal-Mart Supercenter — which caused their “smaller” Wal-Mart store to sit empty at a $200,000 liability. Another resident recommended an “advisory referendum” to see how many citizens wanted Wal-Mart in town. This week, the Register reports that Wal-Mart has paid $30,000 to ask for more time to get its proposal in order. This would be the 8th such extension Wal-Mart has asked for, according to the newspaper. Wal-Mart’s lawyer told the county another extension was needed to get the developer’s plan and railroad modifications at the site, the latter of which must be done by the state. The developer’s agreement is slated to come before the Spooner City Council in September, Wal-Mart said. One member of the County Board complained that Wal-Mart, in effect, had held their land “hostage, in a way” for more than two years. During this time Washburn County taxpayers haven’t received any money from Wal-Mart, nor any taxes. Their extension fees have all gone into an escrow account. If Wal-Mart ended its agreement with the county for the land, all the money in escrow would be distributed to the county. The County Board asked Wal-Mart what their response would be if the county did not allow any more extensions. Wal-Mart’s lawyer had no immediate answer to that. The land agreement that Wal-Mart has presented to the County asks that the land surrounding the superstore not be sold to competitors. Wal-Mart has a list of stores it considers to be competitors. Wal-Mart wants a 40 year no-compete restriction on the surrounding lands. Washburn County has never been asked to restrict who can buy its land in this manner. Wal-Mart implied to the county that if this non-compete clause were deleted from the agreement, the retailer might pull out of the deal. At the city level, the Spooner City Council has apparently agreed to a memo of understanding on the project that requires Wal-Mart to pay offsite road improvements. But if the County does not extend its purchase agreement, Spooner’s agreements would be moot.
The full Washburn County Board of Supervisors meets on July 15th to vote on the land agreement extension. It has been estimated that the road upgrade costs that Wal-Mart will be asked to pay for could reach $4.8 million. In November of 2005, the land sale for $1 million was presented as ‘top secret’, with officials saying only that it involved a Fortune 100 retailer. By March of 2006 the Mayor of Spooner admitted the retailer could be “a Wal-Mart Concept”. Finally it was revealed that Wal-Mart wanted to come to Spooner, despite the fact that there are two Supercenters 20 minutes away in two directions. The grass-roots citizens group Washburn County First (WCF) formed to get information out to the public about the negative impact this development would have on our small town retailers and the county at large. WCF filed a lawsuit against the county for open meetings violations and against the City Board of Alderman for alleged irregularities in granting a variance for the Supercenter with regard to highway access. The county admitted to one count of the open meeting violation, and paid a fine. The city is offering Wal-Mart welfare money to locate in town, putting them in a TIF (tax increment financing) district to offset taxes. Readers are urged to email Micheal Bobin, the Chairman of the Washburn County Board of Supervisors at [email protected] with this message: “Dear Chairman Bobin, Wal-Mart has tied up your 35 acres of land for over two years now, with no financial benefit to county taxpayers to show for it — not even a real estate tax payment. In addition, they are asking you for an unprecedented ‘no compete’ restriction on taxpayer-owned land. This is a totally inappropriate request on Wal-Mart’s part, and shows they are not interested in the free market, just in the free tax breaks they can get from Spooner. Given the fact that this proposal is highly controversial to begin with, I urge you to reject another extension on the land agreement, and to open up that land for other parties to purchase. Wal-Mart has had ample time to make its move, and for its own internal financial reasons, did nothing with this project for months — even suggesting that the project might never come to fruition. It’s time to draw the line, and reject any further extensions of the agreement. Supervisor Mackie is right: this land has been held hostage, and its time to set it free.”