On December 15, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that the city council in Stoughton, Wisconsin had approved a land annexation measure by a vote of 8-4, which brought 185 acres of land into the city, and essentially opened the door for Wal-Mart to proceed with its plans to build a supercenter. A citizen’s group called Stoughton Forward fought the annexation. This case goes back to 2003, and has been a four year controversy in the city. In January of 2004, the City Council voted 9 to 3 to put a size cap of 110,000 square feet on retail stores. But by April of 2004, following a city council election that brought in new Wal-Mart supporters, the pro-growth council voted to lift the 110,000 sq. ft. size cap set in the Big Box ordinance. But then in September of 2005, the City Council voted against annexation of land for a Wal-Mart. Three months later they reversed themselves and voted to annex. It’s been like this in Stoughton for more than four years. When the annexation first failed, Mayor Helen Johnson was quoted as saying, “My concern is that we have a place for our elderly or those who do not own cars to buy a pair of pajamas or a pair of socks here at home.” Her comment must have made the manager of Wal-Mart store # 1176 on Highway 51 West scratch his head — since his store carries pajamas and socks, and is in Stoughton. And there is a new supercenter only 11 miles away in Monona. But it looks like Mayor Johnson could be in for a long wait for that pair of pajamas, because Channel 3000 reports this week that Wal-Mart has now put its four year supercenter battle for Stoughton on hold — another casualty of Wal-Mart’s supercenter rollback. Wal-Mart delivered a letter to city officials saying that the project was now on ice, and that the Plan Commission schedule to consider a conditional land use permit for the store was now in limbo. “As we seek to make the best businesses decisions for the long-term growth and success of our company, we are indeed reviewing all supercenter projects,” the letter from Wal-Mart said. As in more than a handful of cases across the country in the past several weeks, Wal-Mart said the reassessment of plans was due to the company’s announcement at its Annual Meeting that it would cut back its superstore growth in the next few years. Wal-Mart told the media that it would open “only” 195 supercenters in 2007, a 30% rollback from the 281 supercenters it claimed to have opened in 2006. The new openings for the out years drop even further to 170 in 2008, and 140 in 2009. As in other cities across the nation, Stoughton officials said they were “disappointed” because of all the time and effort they had put into the project over the past 4 years. “There are aspects of this project that are not typical,” a company spokesman told Channel 3000, “and carry substantial cost — in terms of our capital investment and in the long-term success of the store. I’m certain these will be looked at.” Considering the fact that the Monona supercenter just opened one month ago 11 miles away, the Stoughton store appears to have lost its moment.
The saturation problem was not lost on city officials. “With any corporation, they only have so many customers, and I’m sure it had some effect on it, how much I don’t know,” Stoughton Alderman Ron Christianson told the TV station. “Again, they’ve worked very hard to try to bring one to Stoughton. I’m guessing they have people in their corporate offices that do the numbers and I feel like maybe they feel that one is needed here too.”
That could be wishful thinking — but many residents in this city of roughly 13,000 people are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. The TV station understated the mood in the city when it said the “issue has been divisive in the Stoughton community.” The group Forward Stoughton told city officials they felt relieved that the project was in limbo. City officials clearly have nothing they can do at this point, and realize now that they are at the mercy of Wal-Mart. The company has left city officials empty-handed. First they lift the cap on building size, then they annex the land — only to have Wal-Mart leave them holding the bag. Readers are urged to email Mayor Helen Johnson at [email protected], or call her at (608) 873-6677, with this message: “You boast of Stoughton’s ‘small town character, unique heritage and beautiful downtown’ — — but none of those qualities will be enhanced by a Wal-Mart supercenter. And you will be left with a dead Wal-Mart store on Highway 51 West. You say your goal is ‘to remain an independent community, providing goods, jobs and services here at home.’ Depending on bigger and bigger Wal-Marts is not the way to protect your independence. Now that Wal-Mart is reassessing Stoughton, it’s time for Stoughton to reassess Wal-Mart — and tell them that after thinking it over, you’ve decided that one Wal-Mart for Stoughton is one more than enough.” The fact that Wal-Mart says it is reassessing all its supercenters is music to the ears of citizen’s groups across America.