The small town of Boonville, Missouri, population 8,200, has had a Wal-Mart discount store since 1985. When it was built, it was an out of scale, edge of town development along Route B. The original Wal-Mart helped to create some vacancies downtown, like the old JC Penney’s store. But now Wal-Mart is back in Boonville, trying to get 29 acres of open land annexed into the city, and converted into a 166,000 s.f. superstore, located roughly one-fifth of a mile away from their existing store. The “old” Wal-Mart will close, creating the 12th dead Wal-Mart in Missouri, nearly 700,000 sf of empty stores in the Show Me State. Boonville sells itself on historic charm and a beautiful setting along the wide Missouri river. It has also been financially helped by the Isle of Capri casino — but the entire sales of the city were only $92.7 million in 2002, and a new Wal-Mart will add another $83 million to that supply. The city simply doesn’t have enough residents to support a supercenter — without cannibalizing its existing merchants, particularly the city’s two existing grocery stores. Area residents objected to the city’s plans to annex the land, and put the matter before the voters in an election tomorrow, November 8th. To sell this unnecessary, and unplanned annexation to the locals, Wal-Mart created a “Yes on Proposition A” committee, and got one of its former employees to chair it. This Yes committee has proceeded to raise $50, and spend $26,000 — putting itself deeply in debt. According to a campaign report filed by law 8 days before the election, someone has run up this nearly $26,000 debt, and managed to hire nationally-known Republican campaign consultants from Virginia and Arizona to work on the campaign on credit. Everyone in Boonville knows that this phony citizens group is getting all its cash in Bentonville. After all, the Yes committee has mailed three full-color fliers, conducted several mass phone callings to indentify their voters, and printed up lawn signs and run display ads in the local newspaper. Yet the committee has chosen not to report any Wal-Mart money. Residents of Boonville say “No way to Proposition A” and are considering raising funds to help the former Wal-Mart employee who is now $26,000 in debt — just in case his Bentonville benefactor doesn’t come up with the cash. Boonville has built itself up as “a river city full of charm and history.” Unfortunately, a huge Wal-Mart supercenter comes with little charm, and no history. But Wal-Mart opponents hope to make a little Boonville history of their own on Tuesday by tripping up the world’s largest retailer on a shoestring budget and lot of hard work organizing their troops.
This dishonest presentation is emblematic of how Wal-Mart operates in a small town. Instead of a grassroots community effort, Wal-Mart creates an “astro-roots” group, fully funds it as quietly as possible, and tries to convince voters that its all a local campaign. In Boonville, Wal-Mart hired one of the largest Republican operatives in the nation, a company called “Targeted Creative Communications,” based in Arlington, Virginia. Out of $26,000 spent, only $86 was spent locally to open up a bank account for the phony group. One Wal-Mart is one more than enough in Boonville, but city officials and Wal-Matr money are a powerful coalition to overcome in a small town. The group called “Not So Super For Boonville” has been fighting this project since it was proposed, and asked Sprawl-Busters to come speak at a rally last week end in downtown Boonville, in front of an empty JC Penney store. At that event, one former Wal-Mart employee, who now works at the local casino, and was rallying against his former retail employer, told me when he was hired they paid him $6.48 an hour, and when he left six years later, he was making just over $7 an hour. Now he’s part of the effort to keep Wal-Mart from expanding. Voters will decide tomorrow if the city is for sale to the highest corporate bidder.