Wal-Mart and public officials in Pima County, Arizona have reached a “development agreement” in which the giant retailer gets to build a supercenter southwest of Tucson, in return for giving back the county 2% of its sales for the next 25 years. On the surface, this appears to be little more than a kick-back scheme, in which Wal-Mart is giving up some of its profits, and buying its way into Pima. But it’s even worse than that, because without the $35 million, the roadwork necessary to get shoppers to Wal-Mart’s store would not have worked. Wal-Mart is underwriting the cost of infrastructure improvements that would not be necessary without the Wal-Mart store. The county is touting this deal as a “model,” in contrast to the rancorous fight that Sprawl- Busters has written about in Tucson, Arizona, where city officials and Wal-Mart have made little progress after two years of negotiations. The Tucson proposal includes a 65-acre “biosciences park”, an upscale housing development and a Wal-Mart. But at the nearby Pima County site, the developer, Donahue-Schriber, and Pima County, announced an agreement this week for a 123,000 s.f. supercenter, plus outlots, on a 30 acre site. Wal-Mart will submit to the county’s design-review process; and will have to comply with the “dark skies” ordinance, which curbs light pollution to aid astronomers; use landscaping designed by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum; and limit hours of operation. According to the Arizona Daily Star, the developer will also pay $600,000 in road impact fees. The money being kicked-back by Wal-Mart will be used to pave the way to its store, mostly road improvements, like widening an access road, improving the intersection, adding a stoplight and a bus stop at the shopping center, etc. But half of the money will go to purchase of more land to buffer the Tucson Mountain Park from development. Wal-Mart will put up some of the money for the $20 million in road improvements in advance and be reimbursed from the set-aside later. The Wal-Mart money will supplement 1997 transportation bond money and state road money. This site is considered environmentally sensitive because it lies along a route to Saguaro National Park West and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the southern entrance to Tucson Mountain County Park. The development will bring more traffic and pollution close to Tucson Mountain Park. “These things impact the desert in ways that are hard to measure,” one county official told the newspaper. One county supervisor said was not fond of Wal-Mart. “I would prefer this not be there if I had my druthers. But we’re not interested in playing a zero-sum game. We want the community to win. If it’s all about ideology as opposed to reality, you’re not going to get this kind of deal.”
“This kind of deal” is not worth getting. County officials defended their actions, telling the Star, “We had fairly little leverage other than saying we’re not going to let you do a huge retail project without adequate transportation. They want to be successful, and it’s going to be hard to be successful without improving the roads.” That’s exactly what’s amiss with this deal. The county had the right to tell Wal-Mart that “a huge retail project” at this location is inappropriate. Because of this “development agreement,” the county has signed off on the project without any public hearings or debate. All that’s left is minor design details. The major issue of taking 30 acres in the desert near historic, tourist destinations, and paving it over, has already hardened. Wal-Mart, understandably, is delighted with the deal. “It’s an example of how communities can take advantage of the opportunities offered by development,” a Wal-Mart spokeswoman told the Daily Star. “Sometimes people think the developer always is the one who wins. The community can win, too.” Perhaps, but the community did not win in Pima. If Wal-Mart had not put up the $35 million, this project would not have happened. A smaller, more appropriately scaled project is now off the table — without any public input.