Wal-Mart has once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. On September 9, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had submitted a proposal to build a 153,000 s.f. superstore in Hamilton, Montana on Highway 93 and Blood Lane. An appropriate location, given the amount of blood that was spilled over this proposal. To get their store permitted, the retailer had to overturn a law in Ravalli County that was passed in April, 2006, which limited the size of superstores to 60,000 s.f. Over 1,000 people jammed into the Hamilton Middle School to speak on the ordinance to cap the size of retail stores. One resident summed up the feelings of most in the overflow crowd when he said, “I am not anti-growth, but I didn’t come to the Bitterroot for economic growth – I came here because of the quality of life and Hamilton’s beauty.” After listening to 3 hours of testimony, which ran roughly 10 to 1 in favor of a cap, the County Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the size limit. But Wal-Mart moved ahead to submit a plan to build their store in an area known as the Bitterroot Valley. “I don’t feel the zoning ordinance applies to us,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. “We feel vested in the building process.” But apparently not too vested, because Wal-Mart contributed $41,752.41 to help a group gather signatures to challenge the county’s vote by putting the issue on the November, 2006 ballot. A Wal-Mart-funded group called the “Citizens for Economic Opportunity,” received a huge Wal-Mart check in May, just as the petition drive was getting underway. So Wal-Mart paid to get its issue on the ballot. The leader of the pro Wal-Mart group told the Missoulian newspaper that Wal-Mart’s money was used to pay for several mailings and to hire signature gatherers. “I wouldn’t deny that they donated, but at the same time, this is about free enterprise,” said a spokesman for CEO. “This isn’t about Wal-Mart. It’s about the freedom to do business.” Citizens for Economic Opportunity argued that state law and the state Constitution provide that the county’s emergency resolution on the size cap ordinance was suspended, pending the November vote. Which is why Wal-Mart reapplied to try and get “grandfathered” under the old zoning code, with no size cap. The county disagreed, and said that Wal-Mart filed a state building permit back in March, 2006 to build a 153,000 s.f. store, but later withdrew it. Then the company filed again. The county’s lawyer filed for a Summary Judgment to get the courts to declare that the ordinance had not been suspended. The county said that “Wal-Mart is clearly ‘gaming’ the system and has been actively involved in this process, to try to build a large-scale store in Ravalli County without waiting to determine what the majority of its citizens want.” The Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition told the newspaper at the time that the amount of funding Wal-Mart had pumped into its “astro-roots” group was a “shocking amount” to spend on a signature-gathering drive. “That amounts to more than $7 for every signature that CEO gathered, an amount not seen since the days when the Copper Kings were buying elections a century ago.” But they had no idea what would happen next. Wal-Mart launched an effort that spent $100,000 to $140,000 to overturn the size cap. They won in November, 2006 — but squeaked by with a only a margin of 51% of the vote. Even with a landslide of funding, they almost lost. This week, two and a half years after Wal-Mart won that bitter voter battle in Bitterroot, Wal-Mart announced suddenly that it is pulling its plans from Hamilton. The company said its withdrawal was part of its corporate decision last June to cut back on the number of new supercenters it is building. “For now, we’re holding off on building any type of store,” Wal-Mart said. “This is a short-term step and certainly, longer term, we will take advantage of any opportunities that arise. We heard loud and clear that people in Ravalli County wanted us.” But Ravelli County Commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff heard another message loud and clear. She told the Missoulian that Wal-Mart’s plans were “extremely contentious.” “I think a Wal-Mart would have been detrimental to the local businesses,” she told the newspaper. “I’m glad for the mom-and-pop shops on Main Street.” One local bookstore owner told the paper, “This is a reprieve. But we still have to prove to the community that local, independently owned businesses still have value. It is meaningless unless we start a conversation on what we want the community to look like – economically as well as physically.” Now Ravalli County has a second chance to get it right.
The head of the “citizens” group that was bankrolled by Wal-Mart, told the Missoulian he was disappointed by Wal-Mart’s decision. “I guess my reaction would be that it is a shame that they are letting down the people who wanted it here,” Dallas Erickson said. “A lot of people have health problems and can’t afford to drive to the Supercenter in Missoula.” There are two Wal-Marts in Missoula, a discount store and a superstore. Both are roughly 40+ miles away. That’s not a long distance in Montana, but local residents were not fighting all stores — they were fighting the scale of a store almost three times the size of a football field. As of 2006, Hamilton had less than 5,000 population, and the entire Ravalli County is around 41,000 people — short of the 50,000 people needed to support a supercenter. The head of the Downtown Hamilton Business Improvement District, said local merchants never embraced the Wal-Mart plan. They thought a Supercenter was too large for the area. “We welcome reasonable growth and competition in the Valley,” she said. “We’re not eager to have our valley turn into a string of larger chain stores. Local businesses reinvest in the community. The problem with large chains is the money gets siphoned out of the community.” Readers are urged to email the Chairwoman of the Ravalli County Commissioners, Carlotta Grandstaff at [email protected] with this message: “Thank you for standing up for your local merchants in the battle against Wal-Mart. Now that they have left you at the altar, I hope you will go back and reinstitute the cap on building size, which was unfairly opposed by Wal-Mart money in the first place. It shows how whimsical this company is: they spent a fortune to change your zoning laws in 2006, only to drop their plans in 2008. I hope the citizens of Ravalli County realize now that your community was just a pin in the map to Wal-Mart. There are more than 4,000 Wal-Mart stores in America, but only one Ravalli County. Protect the character of your county, and reimpose the size cap.”