As predicted by Sprawl-Busters, corporate democracy prevailed in Cave Creek, Arizona on November 3rd. Although official election results will not be published until November 6th, the Arizona Republic reports that roughly 76% of the voters approved two measures on the ballot that will allow rezoning of land from residential to commercial, paving the way for a 128,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. Wal-Mart purchased the election just as it purchases any other product. Cave Creek was for sale, and Wal-Mart came up with at least $185,000 to change the towns’ zoning. In effect, Cave Creek has “Ad Hoc Zoning” now. Any developer who has the money can buy whatever zoning they want — a kind of designer approach to local zoning. As it has done elsewhere, Wal-Mart flooded Cave Creek with money, creating an “astro-roots” group, and funding it fully out of Bentonville. In a Wal-Mart democracy, the side with the most money wins. Just days before the election, Wal-Mart had outspent its opponents by a margin of 15 to 1. The final spending totals are not known yet, but Wal-Mart spent $36 per resident in Cave Creek. On September 20, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the giant retailer was opening up its corporate wallet to try to ‘buy’ the vote. The company-owned group, the “Friends of Cave Creek,” has been the local pass-through for Wal-Mart’s lavish spending during the run-up to the election. Cave Creek already has 10 Wal-Marts within 20 miles, half of which are superstores. There are two giant superstores just 12 and 13 miles away in Phoenix. The tiny town of Cave Creek had a 2007 population of 5,120 — about one-tenth of what it takes to keep a Wal-Mart supercenter alive. But according to the Arizona Republic, Wal-Mart has not finished saturating this area with stores. Opposition to this project formed quickly. Residents charged that the superstore would make traffic congestion at the busy intersection even worse, and take away from the town’s rural character. The site is also located close to three schools, and the local school district asked Wal-Mart to hold deliveries to the store during high pedestrian traffic hours — something Wal-Mart was unwilling to do. The retailer had to get the zoning on its 20 acre property changed from residential to commercial. Wal-Mart convinced local officials that their supercenter would generate between 300 and 350 jobs. At 128,000 s.f., the project is somewhat smaller than the average footprint of a superstore. “We have supercenters that are 100,000 s.f.,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said, “and we have supercenters that are 220,000 s.f.” At a hearing on May 6th, some very unhappy residents of Cave Creek expressed their opposition to placing this store in their residential neighborhood. Cave Creek’s Town Council voted on June 15th to rezone the land. This project kicked up dust since Wal-Mart first tried to get the town’s General Plan amended in 2007. That proposal was later withdrawn by Wal-Mart as their growth plans changed. Then, in 2008, Wal-Mart bought the 20 acre property for a reported $8 million. Residents opposed to the project openly asked why Wal-Mart was trying to rezone residential land, which was clearly not meant for commercial use, when there are parcels nearby already commercially zoned? “This type of rezoning is so anti Cave Creek values,” Councilwoman Grace Meeth told The Republic. “What’s the big deal about leasing land when there is commercially zoned land (nearby)?” Shortly after the Town Council voted to rezone, a citizen’s group announced it would appeal the rezoning. A group called PRIZE (Protect Residential Integrity Zoning and Environment) organized a citizen’s referendum to overturn the Council decision to change the town’s General Plan to support the Wal-Mart. PRIZE gathered sufficient signatures to place the referendum on the November 3rd ballot. Wal-Mart will be only 159 feet from homes. PRIZE did not have access to the corporate money that Wal-Mart provided. According to one PRIZE member, “This is the largest retailer in the world. They can throw as much money as they want at it that we can’t.” The Wal-Mart front group claimed that Wal-Mart’s total funding of the group just showed their interest in Cave Creek. “The financial support provided to Friends of Cave Creek by Wal-Mart is further testament of their commitment to be a contributing member of this community,” the treasurer for Friends of Cave Creek told the newspaper. After learning of the election results, a leader of PRIZE told the newspaper, “We tried to mount a grass-roots effort. If we didn’t prevail, at least we gave it our all.”
Wal-Mart also gave it their all — all their money. PRIZE was fighting not just Wal-Mart, but the Mayor of Cave Creek and local officials as well. Mayor Vincent Francia believes this superstore will bring his small community an extra $2 to $3 million in sales taxes. The Mayor warned that if the Wal-Mart was not approved by voters, he would have to raise property taxes on the average homeowner by $400 to $500 a year. “Why would you want to do that to your citizens?” Mayor Francia told the Republic. “Even though I understand we need it, I still would be reluctant.” Wal-Mart has been known to spend more than half a million on such ballot questions. Citizens groups seeking to put a Wal-Mart issue before the voters just need to be prepared for the fact that they will be buried by the money contributed by the big box stores. Wal-Mart did phone calls, media buys, and direct mailing. PRIZE could not compete financially with Wal-Mart, and the short-sightedness of local officials. Wal-Mart has lost ballot campaigns in the past — even when they spent big — but the game does not take place on a level playing field. Corporations should not be allowed to spend unlimited sums on such campaigns, but sometimes corporations have more rights than citizens.