As a footnote to yesterday’s story about the citizen’s victory in Newport News, Virginia, over Wal-Mart, here’s a story sent to Sprawl-Busters about how the giant retailer tries to worm its way into the hearts of local people: “We have been fighting a proposed Wal-Mart in our community. The land was zoned residential and they were trying to get it rezoned commercial. We won the fight!! We got word today that Wal-Mart has withdrawn the proposal, but before they withdrew, they sent in a dirty-tricks guy. A Mr. Knibbs from Arkansas came to Newport News and set up meetings at a poor area of Newport News (not the area where they wanted to build the store). He called all the churches in the area and called a meeting to tell them about their scholarship programs and job opportunities. He also told them that if they supported the Wal-Mart in our community that Wal-Mart would build a store in THEIR community to help with the unemployment rate and give them a place to shop. Incidentally, the piece of land that he said they would build their store on is only 3 ?? acres, so it would actually be impossible for them to put a store there, so that was all a lie. In essence, they were trying to pit community against community, and drum up support for the Wal-Mart store that we did not want. Their plan backfired. One of the members of the group hearing Mr. Knibbs was a city council member and he not only read him the riot act and sent him on his way, but then proceeded to let all the other churches know what this man was trying to do and they cancelled the meetings. Shortly after, Wal-Mart withdrew their plans to build the store!!
How’s this for a slogan: “At Wal-Mart, we pit community against community. Always!” This kind of advance work by public relations firms retained by Wal-Mart is typical. Using operatives to work on the churches, or to make promises at senior centers, it’s all part of selling the store. Wal-Mart has to resort to such tactics because the appetite for new stores at the local level is waning, and Wal-Mart has to work harder to get stores accepted at the local level. Sprawl-Busters estimates that one out of every three superstores proposed this year will be challenged. In the case of Newport News, it didn’t take long at all for the store to fall from its own weight. No amount of flim-flam PR work could save it. These stores are not being built at this point for local shoppers on Main Street, but for investors on Wall Street. For Wal-Mart to keep its stock price from falling, it has to show sales growth, and growth in store square footage. If either starts to stumble, so does Wal-Mart stock.