In the town of North Smithfield, Rhode Island, the retail question of the moment is not “Where’s Waldo?” but “Where’s Walton?” Since at least the spring of 2004, activists in North Smithfield, population 11,300, have been fighting a major retail development in their community known as Dowling Village. Far from a ‘village,’ this 136.5 acre project includes a residential component, and 591,562 s.f. of retail stores, plus another 95,800 s.f. of chain restaurants and office space. It’s by far the largest retail complex in the history of this town. Since the spring of 2004, the developer, Bucci Development, has refused to idenifiy its tenants, presenting this massive project in footprint size, but no names. Now, 3 and half years after filing its environmental reviews, Bucci is denying published reports that a Wal-Mart supercenter is lurking inside Dowling Village. According to the Valley Breeze newspaper, Bucci Development denies charges leveled by Caroly Shumway, the president of the Valley Alliance for Smart Growth. Shumway says the 185,000 s.f. footprint in the project is a Wal-Mart superstore, and that the developer already has a signed agreement with the Arkansas-based retailer. Her charge is substantiated by the town’s outgoing planner, who agrees it’s a Wal-Mart — but says it will not be a supercenter. Bucci’s lawyer accused Shumway of using “scare tactics.” “Once again Caroly Shumway is wrong,” said the Bucci spokesman. “She is an extremist, alarmist, self-seeking, she’s trying to scare the community by saying we have signed leases with two national tenants and she’s wrong. We have none; we don’t even have final approval.” In response, Shumway noted, “We know for a fact that it’s a Lowe’s and a super Wal-Mart.” She points out that one of the engineering consultants admitted that Lowe’s was a tenant last spring. “As to the super Wal-Mart,” Shumway told the Breeze, “we have heard this directly from our town planner. Al Norman, our fiscal reviewer, concurred it was a Wal-Mart.” North Smithfield’s planner told the newspaper that the 185,000 s.f. building 10 “appears to be a Wal-Mart but I don’t believe it’s a super Wal-Mart.” The planner said that Bucci’s plans have suggested to him that the plan is “for a Wal-Mart/Target.” The developer focused on the status of the agreement with Wal-Mart — not on whether it was a Wal-Mart on not. “It’s been the Bucci company’s long-standing policy not to comment on prospective tenants when there are no leases signed,” the developer’s spokesman said. “We are in discussions with several national tenants.”
Shumway has spent three and a half years fighting Dowling Village, spending money out of her own pocket, and raising the rest, to fend off this massive plan. She helped to found the citizen’s group to press the opposition legally. It’s been an expensive and time-consuming project for Shumway. When developers attack citizen activists, it’s usually because they can’t fight them on the facts, so they try to divert attention with character assassination. “In an 18-year career, I have spent three years after work fighting big-box (development), while working full-time at non-profits and remaining a faculty member. This is hardly self-seeking,” Shumway explained. “This project cannot hide from the facts, as much as they desperately try to deflect the issues.” Last week, the town’s Planning Board postponed a hearing on the preliminary master plan, resetting the hearing dates for January. The Valley Alliance say that Dowling Village will put local merchants out of business, and will generate significant traffic problems for the town, as well as increased public safety costs. Sprawl-Busters has suggested that the 185,000 s.f. mystery store is, in fact, a Wal-Mart superstore. It is typical for Wal-Mart to withhold its identity in a project until local permitting is acquired. The company often adopts a low-profile to allow the developer to proceed without the burden of battling community opposition to Wal-Mart specificially. A store this size is not likely to be a Target for several reasons: 1) Last year Target only added 33 new Super Targets across the country; 2) the average size of a Super Target is 176,000 s.f.; 3) Target already has 3 stores in Rhode Island, and its sale per square foot in the Ocean state ranks in the 4th lowest of five rating categories the retailer uses; 5) Target recently announced that it was cutting back the number of new stores it is rolling out in 2009 — as did Wal-Mart. But by volume, Wal-Mart will add four times as many superstores as Target this coming year, making the Wal-Mart odds in Dowling Village much higher than Target. Either way, the 185,000 s.f. store will do similar damage regardless of which merchant signs a lease or purchases a building there. The size of the footprint, and their more aggressive rollout of superstores, makes Wal-Mart’s presence in North Smithfield the odds-on choice. The developer is probably more concerned about his agreement with Wal-Mart not to reveal their identity, than it is about the fact it’s really a Wal-Mart. The logo on the building does not really matter to the Valley Alliance, which has vowed to fight the store and kill the project. So far, the group has done a remarkable job of slowing down progress on the over-scaled project. One thing we know for sure: it will be a superstore, because Wal-Mart does not build 185,000 s.f. discount stores anywhere. Readers are urged to cut and paste this article and email it to the North Smithfield Planning Department Clerk, Denise Davis, at [email protected] and ask her to share it with Planning Board Chairman Joe Cardello, III.