The town of Bath, New York this week became the 50th community to have a Wal-Mart supercenter canned or delayed since the retailer “moderated” its growth plans last June. Sprawl-Busters reported on April 28, 2007 — almost a year ago — that Wal-Mart had announced plans to build a 150,000 s.f. supercenter in Bath. They submitted an environmental assessment form (EAF) and a site plan. The store was proposed for State Route 54, a two lane road. The EAF stated there would be an additional 880 cars per hour passing along this section of road once the store was operating. “We are excited to have the opportunity to bring a Supercenter to Bath,” a senior public affairs manager for Wal-Mart told the Star-Gazette newspaper. “Currently, residents have to travel nearly 20 miles to shop at a Supercenter.” Wal-Mart claimed that the proposed store would create 350 jobs, most of them full-time, and would generate a “significant amount” of local tax revenue for the town of Bath. “We know that Bath residents shop at existing (Wal-Mart) stores even though they are significantly farther away,” the retailer said. “We know from our research that it will be a pretty big draw and a pretty successful Supercenter.” The town’s Supervisor in Bath told the newspaper it was “satisfying” that Wal-Mart had enough confidence in the town to undertake a project there. “It is my hope that the Wal-Mart development will make Bath a shopping destination and will serve not only the Bath community but also draw shoppers from outside the immediate area,” the Supervisor said. A member of the town board already indicated his support for the project even before the site plan had been reviewed. “I know that some people immediately have some negative thoughts,” board member Robert Lattimer said. “But I have seen Wal-Mart developments be very positive things for small communities.” This week, those local officials look foolish. It turns out that Wal-Mart did not have enough confidence to build a store in Bath. The promised “big draw” was withdrawn. “The decision is related to our continued plans to moderate growth of U.S. Supercenters,” Wal-Mart told the Star-Gazette. “After re-evaluating the anticipated budget, a determination was made not to move forward with this project.” Two opposition groups, the Bath NY Group, and the PeaceWeavers, were delighted by the Wal-Mart withdrawal. These groups indicated that environmental concerns with the huge store, and its impact on the aquifer below the store, made the site a bad location for a superstore. “It’s perfect (news) for Earth Day,” a member of the Bath, NY Group told the Star-Gazzette. “The Supercenter was definitely a threat to our water, and we did not need to add a 750-car parking lot and runoff.” The group said their protests had an impact on this week’s outcome. “We were definitely a presence, and we didn’t back down,” she said. “What a gift this is for the town of Bath and the surrounding area.” Local businessman Scott Ward told the Corning Leader newspaper, “There was always something of a backdoored-ness about (Wal-Mart) when it started. The town board was locked and cocked before all the information was out. They didn’t want to study the issues. Wal-Mart was going to steal business from its other stores to get a short-term bang,” he said. “But Bath was built on agriculture and manufacturing and that is what will sustain us.”
Wal-Mart left public officials in Bath, New York with nothing but a pat on the back. “We would also like to thank all of the residents who supported this project,” the company spokesman said. “Unfortunately, given our new direction, Bath was one of many projects that were reviewed and not approved to move forward.” The warning signs were clear. The company did not complete its filing requirements as part of its New York State Environmental Quality Review Act process. But one town council member still admitted she was surprised by the abruptness of the Wal-Mart withdrawal. Robin Lattimer said she was “deeply disappointed” by Wal-Mart’s unilateral decision. “Obviously we’ve survived without one (a Wal-Mart), and we will survive without one in the future. As the economy is cyclical, this decision may change. A majority of the community wanted this project. I think it’s totally a reflection of the economic conditions we are confronting right now. Everybody knows we are in a swamp.” But Wal-Mart is not in a swamp. This week the company was declared #1 on the Fortune 500 list, having the largest revenues of any corporation. According to Fortune, Wal-Mart had 2007 revenues of $378.8 billion, a 7.9% increase over 2006, and had profits of $12.7 billion in 2007. So it is not lack of money, or declining sales that is causing these pull outs. The fact is, Wal-Mart has over-built its empire, has placed its stores so close to one another that it has cannibalized its own sales per square foot. In the meantime, almost every superstore Wal-Mart announces for upstate New York, has been met with fierce opposition. Battles have taken place in Ballston, Colonie, Angola, Monsey, Batavia, Lima, Lockport, Amherst, Saranac Lake, Rotterdam, Cortland and Greece, New York. For Wal-Mart addicts, there are 4 stores within 27 miles of this location, including two supercenters. In fact, the supercenter in Painted Post, New York is only 17 miles away. A Wal-Mart in Bath would have taken most of its sales from retailers in Bath itself — most notably existing grocery stores. But town board member Lattimer maintains her vigil for Wal-Mart. “I do truly hope they change their minds, and sooner rather than later. I certainly don’t take their decision as a tone on the community.” If the town board does nothing to limit the size of superstores in Bath, it will remain a helpless victim to decisions made outside its borders.