Ever since Wal-Mart was born in Bethlehem, New York, its attracted one problem after another. Sprawl-Busters reported on April 13, 2001 that Wal-Mart was part of a project known as the “Town Center” in the little town of Bethlehem along Route 9W. The Nigro Companies, a development company known for high-pressure sales of big box projects, had proposed 350,000 square feet of retail stores, including a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Home Depot, Applebees, Wendy’s, and a bank. Residents critical of the 75 acre plan formed a group called PLAN 9W (People/Parents/Pedestrians Looking At Nigro and 9W). Residents warned that the new project would have a devastating impact on the existing central business district on Delaware Avenue. The Bethlehem Town Board voted to approve the project, over the objections of Plan 9W. “We don’t have an overall vision,” Kathleen Martens, a Glenmont resident and leader of the citizen’s group said at the time. “People are concerned about their community’s character…All of this is really a prime example of urban sprawl — a lot of business development not in the main area of town, but adjacent to a city area.” The project violated the town’s Master Plan, which said, “The scale of new retail development should be designed primarily to serve residents in the community, or its subareas, and not regional or subregional markets.” On February 15, 2003, it was announced that Lowe’s was joining the Wal-Mart project as well. “I think 10 to 20 years down the road the residents of Bethlehem will view this as a mistake,” said opponent Michael Trout. The town of Bethlehem had apparently asked Nigro to pay for sidewalks in the development, but owner John Nigro walked on that idea, until he signed Lowe’s onto the project. The developer then offered to chip in for sidewalks, but the City Council did not even ask how much that commitment was worth. This is the same John Nigro that bulldozed an historic home in East Greenbush, NY that played a key role in the mid-1800s in the Albany County Rent Wars. Both the house, and a very old tree in front of the house were destroyed, even as preservationists were trying to save the structure and tree. Nigro had the tree cut down at 5:30 am on a Sunday, just in time to attend Church after the deed was done. On December 17, 2003, Sprawl-Busters updated this Bethlehem tale. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation had ordered the Nigro company to pay a $70,000 civil penalty, and to buy an advertisement in The Business Review publicizing the need to comply with state wastewater regulations. The settlement was in response to the charge that the Nigro Companies had polluted water near its huge Wal-Mart/Lowe’s project in the Bethlehem hamlet of Glenmont. It was alleged by the local bricklayers union that Nigro was risking mudslides into the wetlands, and adding muddy water to the local sewer system. Nigro was using a non-union general contractor, so the unions monitored progress on the site, and threatened to sue the developer over environmental violations. The Nigro company attributed the violations to changes in federal storm water management regulations that were passed last year. This week, the Nigro project in Bethlehem was generating negative headlines again. The Albany Times Union reports that the cops in Bethlehem have been spending a lot of time at the Wal-Mart ever since it opened in 2004. When Nigro was making his big box pitch to the town, he told officials that Wal-Mart would translate into 3 or 4 police calls to the store each month. But the reality turned out to be very different. In fact, there was so much crime taking place at the Wal-Mart, that company officials ended its 24 hour operations, and shut it down at night in 2008. According to the newspaper’s review of police incident reports, the Wal-Mart store had an average of 392 police calls per year, from the period 2004 to 2006. Instead of 3 or 4 visits per month, the police were out at the Wal-Mart at least once a day — more than 8 times what the Nigro Companies estimated.
The town of Bethlehem includes 7 hamlets. The Wal-Mart superstore is located in the hamlet of Glenmont. Bethlehem describes itself as “a dynamic and diverse community with a population of over 31,000… situated on the west bank of the Hudson River, bordering Albany, the capital city of New York State.” The town says it is a “modern community with its roots in the past… a unique combination of friendly neighborhoods and rural beauty.” Wal-Mart has not added to that rural beauty, and the atmosphere in the neighborhoods around Wal-Mart is anything but friendly. A Wal-Mart spokesman admitted that the cutback in store hours was directly related to the amount of criminal activity at the store, and resulting concerns raised by the police and town officials. One police department spokesman told the Times Union that the amount of calls to the store “remained consistent” in 2008. He said there was an increase in police reports at Wal-Mart during the holiday season. The newspaper said that a recent check of the police log showed that cops still make “many visits a week, mostly for petty larceny.” The store has had its share of shoplifting, fights, and some robberies. Wal-Mart stores have been troubled for years with well-publicized public safety problems: bomb threats, rapes, murders, abductions, shootings, etc. The company has been unable to keep itself out of the front pages of local newspapers. Company defenders say all retailers are nagged by crime on their premises, but Wal-Mart stores set the Guinness record because the company also claims that 135 million shoppers use its stores every month. Superstores are convenient for shoppers, as well as criminals, because they are crowded, confusing, and near the highway. Residents in Bethlehem were told the criminal activity — and the cost of coping with it — would be minimal. Opponents tell Sprawl-Busters that during project hearings in 2001, they warned the town that police calls would average between 20 and 30 per month. It turns out they were somewhat low. Readers are urged to email Town Supervisor John H. Cunningham at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Supervisor Cunningham, The town of Bethlehem likes to promote itself as ‘one of America’s most desirable communities.’ You certainly don’t want the word to get around that your sprawling ‘Town Center’ with its crime-magnet, Wal-Mart, is a key shopping hub for your hamlets. The fact is, you were sold a bill of goods by the Nigro companies. Their sloppy building practices drew a fine from the New York DEC, and now the company is in the news once again for the level of criminal activity at the site. All these police reports are costing the taxpayers money. It’s time to ask Wal-Mart to make a substantial contribution to Bethlehem for the cost of public safety responses to the store. In addition, the Town Board should ask the corporation to assume the cost of providing better protection at the store with its own people, on its own payroll. A more visible security force at Wal-Mart might reduce the number of times your officers have to drive out to the store. It turns out that Wal-Mart is not the good neighbor they said they would be, and the crime rate will continue to rise unless the town takes more aggressive action. Reducing the store’s hours was a good first step, but the level of crime at Wal-Mart is unacceptable for your small community, and company officials should be asked to develop a plan on how they can control and reduce the amount of money the taxpayers have to spend patrolling their property.”