All it takes is the shadow of a Wal-Mart to get people upset. It doesn’t matter what part of the country you live in — huge Wal-Mart superstores generate huge opposition. For this reason, Wal-Mart does its best to keep a low profile for as long as possible. But Wal-Mart’s cover got blown this week in Powhatan County,Virginia — and the response from neighbors was predictable. Powhatan County has almost doubled its population since 1990. As of 2008, the population hovered around 28,000 people. The county has 273 square miles of Virginia countryside, with James River on its north, and the Appomattox on its south. Named after Pocahontas’ father, Powhatan has a long history, which local officials like to say “is secure because of the interest of its citizens in restoration and preservation.” But the county is also in a period of painful change due to its rapid growth. “Slowly but surely, Powhatan is undergoing a transformation,” the official county website admits. “No longer can workers count on lifetime jobs with mainstay manufacturers, and the former banking hub is now more like a financial byway.” Philip Morris until recently was the region’s largest employer, but the Capital One Financial Corp is now the number one employer in the area. Many of the banking jobs have exited, but the county says it is working to attract high-tech manufacturing, and good-paying jobs. Into this transformation steps an incongruous player: Wal-Mart. In April of 2009, rumors began sweeping the county that Wal-Mart had its eye on Powhatan, and according to the newspaper Powhatan Today, the very shadow of a Wal-Mart “has sent an anxious hum” through the county. As far back as the fall of 2008 a traffic impact study along Route 60, west of Route 675 was being conducted for an unnamed, 170,000 s.f. retail center on nearly 54 acres of land. The land is not properly zoned, and will have to be rezoned by the county to allow the project. A piece of the property is zoned Residential Commercial, but another portion of the site is zoned Light Industrial — and this piece will have to be changed. When rumors of a Wal-Mart began to circulate widely, the County Planner told Powhatan Today that he hadn’t “seen anything with Wal-Mart’s name on it.” The size of the building, however, was a dead giveaway. But this week, county officials became more forthcoming about the rumored project. The County’s Administrator said that on August 18, 2009, a meeting between Wal-Mart and county officials had taken place. No one from the media was at the meeting. The Administrator said she told Wal-Mart to become visible, but Wal-Mart’s lawyer said the giant retailer preferred to hold off until “everything is a done deal.” Wal-Mart’s lawyer told the newspaper, “there are still some things that need to fall into place and we don’t need to get people stirred up for something that might not happen.” Then he added, “We think it is going to happen.” So people in Powhatan are definitely “stirred up,” to use the retailer’s verb. Area residents met with the County’s Board of Supervisors this past week. One county resident told the Supervisors that “We want you to understand how important” the big box issue is “to the people of the county. Be forthcoming… keep citizens updated. The more transparent you are the better… Make the people part of the discussion sooner rather than later.” Despite assurances from two supervisors that their would be a “full public process,” the fact that a Wal-Mart project has been proceeding below radar for almost a year has many local residents upset. It’s already later than they think.
One of the residents most upset is Debbie Markel. She told Sprawl-Busters, “By invoking a Freedom of Information Act request 2 weeks ago, I just found out that a representative from our county Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission, and the County Administrator had a stealth meeting planned with an “unnamed big box store” this week Apparently, a lot of planning and communications had occurred prior to this meeting, all unbeknownst to the county residents. Wal-Mart sent their expert attorney from our area, an architect, and an engineer. Other pre-work in the FOIA papers included a preliminary traffic study and an authority paper from the Army Corps of Engineers, due to the existence of wetlands on the property under contract to the developer. I went public when the FOIA information was received and set up a Powhatan Wal-mart Watch group on Facebook, wrote an article for our local newspaper, and began circulating petitions. We are planning a public organizing meeting in the near future and a massive presence at supervisors meetings.” Markel also submitted an op-ed piece to Powhatan Today. “Walmart is the largest retailer in the world,” Markel wrote. “It has the money, power, and influence to dangle jobs and tax revenues in front of local officials in order to move in and dominate sales wherever it chooses. The lure of these additional funds and jobs coming into a locality is appealing to government officials and politicians. However, Walmart isn’t often the panacea for cash-strapped areas that it appears from the outset. In reality, Walmart can offer immediate dollars, but its longer-term negative effects can change an area’s identity and character and strain its resources. That is the fear I have for Powhatan — that our rural, normally peaceful community, our thousands of acres of wooded land, and our diverse array of natural wildlife and native plants, will all begin to erode when a retail development of that magnitude moves here.” Markel then listed the downside of a Wal-Mart: “It is a fact that when Walmart moves in, local businesses that compete shut down. In Powhatan, that could mean our locally-owned pharmacies, florists, optometrists and opticians, jewelry store, herb and supplement shop, appliance store, cell phone shop, and more. One Iowa study proved that up to 47% of local retail trade was lost within 10 years of Walmart’s opening. For a short time, Walmart does add jobs; however, a very recent investigation proved that after several years, the net job growth is zero due to so many local businesses shutting down. The jobs Walmart adds are mainly low-wage, part time positions that pay up to 30% less than average for retailers. Most workers don’t qualify for benefits and the majority of their children are eligible for free lunches at school… Are those the types of jobs Powhatan wants to attract?” In addition to this voodoo economics, Markel cited environmental degradation, traffic congestion, demand on county water, sewer and trash facilities, and increase policing costs from the crime that Wal-Mart attracts. “Walmart stores have a 400% higher than average crime rate than nearby Target stores,” she wrote. “I love living in Powhatan. I moved here from Midlothian to escape big box stores, traffic, noise, and crime. I have regularly patronized local businesses and have been willing to drive the extra distance for items I couldn’t find here. I had local choices and now those choices are being threatened. And yes, I have a small business that is struggling to stay afloat. Walmart’s presence would be the final nail in my coffin. Progress doesn’t always have to mean conforming to the suburban growth model… There are thousands of communities around the country that have not been blinded by the lure of big box stores like Walmart. Instead, they have revitalized their towns and villages into unique and quaint destination shopping and tourist attractions. They find ways to capitalize on their history and their strengths and by doing so, they maintain their small town charm while still adding tax revenues. There is no reason Powhatan’s leaders can’t think “outside of the box” (pun intended) and avoid selling out to a business that will effect profound changes to our county. Once it occurs, there’s no turning back.” Readers are urged to email Robert Cosby, the Chairman of the Powhatan County, Virginia Board of Supervisors at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Cosby, the Wal-Mart cat took a long time to get out of the bag — but now that residents know what’s being proposed, its time for Supervisors to lead growth, instead of follow it. The parcel Wal-Mart wants is not properly zoned. You have the legal right to deny rezoning. There are also wetlands on the parcel that need to be protected. The scale of this project is simply incompatible with the rest of the surrounding built environment on Route 60 and 675. This proposed superstore is nearly three times the size of a football field. You have six Wal-Mart superstores within 22 miles, and most of the sales at any new store will come from existing merchants. Don’t rezone this parcel. Promote ‘restoration and preservation’ in the county instead.”