Wal-Mart likes to put itself on the ballot. The corporation’s sense of democracy is that the side which spends the most money should win. In Plaistow, New Hampshire, when Wal-Mart didn’t have enough land to build a superstore, it put itself on the Town Meeting Warrant for a rezoning. Plaistow is a small town with roughly 7,700 population — not much higher than it was in 1990. The town already has Wal-Mart store #1930 on Plaistow Road. Seven miles away there’s Wal-Mart discount store #3491, and 8 miles away a Wal-Mart supercenter in Salem, New Hampshire. There are no less than 11 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of the current Plaistow store — including two supercenters. But the Lawrence Eagle Tribune reported in early January that Wal-Mart’s plan to build a new superstore in Plaistow was under a “cloud of suspense” because of a tie-vote from the town’s Planning Board. The vote to rezone three residential lots on Route 125 to commercial land was a dead heat at 2-2, and even Wal-Mart’s attorney told the Board that a tie vote meant the motion did not carry. “I’d rather get a right decision,” Wal-Mart’s attorney told town officials. “My understanding is a tie vote doesn’t pass. Much as it’s against my interest, I’d rather have the Planning Board make the right decision.” The Chairman of the Planning Board and one of his colleagues voted for the project, but two of his members, Peter Bealo and Neal Morin, voted it down. A 5th member had to abstain because he has an interest in the project. Wal-Mart says if the additional lots are not rezoned to commercial, the existing lot they control is not big enough for their supercenter. “The size and shape of the… lot are not sufficient to develop a Wal-Mart,” the retailer’s lawyer told the newspaper. Wal-Mart’s strategy in Plaistow was to circulate petitions to put the rezoning issue before the Town Meeting. This is not really a “citizen’s petition,” because it was engineered by a private corporation, but Wal-Mart is hoping voters at Town Meeting won’t remember or care. The reason Wal-Mart went to the Planning Board was to try to get the official backing from the Board, because that group’s backing would significantly improve the chances of the Town Meeting members voting to pass the article. As the newspaper points out, warrant articles brought by “citizens” are often in jeopardy if the Planning Board does not back them. This week, the “Wal-Mart article” on the town warrant was back in the news, because a group of local residents has organized a grassroots campaign to defeat the article. Opponents of the rezoning for Wal-Mart say they are concerned about Wal-Mart’s traffic — not Wal-Mart per se. “I love Wal-Mart. I drive to the Supercenter in Epping,” said one prominent opponent, former State Representative Merilyn Senter. “I’d love to see a Supercenter herein Plaistow.” According to Senter, the County’s Planning Commission traffic says there are 7,000 cars going up and down Main Street daily, and that many shoppers heading for Wal-Mart on Route 125 will go through Main Street to get there — and Main Street cannot handle it. The whole question will rise or fall on March 10th at the Town Meeting. Voters must rezone three residential lots to commercial, or Wal-Mart doesn’t have enough space to build. The Planning Board refused to put the rezoning change on the warrant, which is not a good sign. So Wal-Mart had to put it on as a “citizen’s petition.” A resident named David Averill has begun an e-mail campaign to defeat the warrant article, and believes opponents can stop Wal-Mart. “Oh, absolutely,” he told the Lawrence Eagle Tribune. “I don’t see why people would be motivated to come out and vote for it. It’s not anything against Wal-Mart. It’s not wanting to have any giant box store on Main Street.” But what Averill doesn’t know, is to what lengths Wal-Mart will go to win this election.
Area residents in Plaistow have been getting telemarketing phone calls asking people if they are for or against the superstore. The newspaper reports that “some think Wal-Mart’s behind the calls.” Wal-Mart would not admit it has any connection with the calls. “Unfortunately, I just can’t comment right now about the project,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Eagle Tribune. But this survey is called a “Voter ID” survey. It’s not a poll, it’s a way that Wal-Mart can identify its base of supporters. By ranking people by their level of support for the superstore, Wal-Mart can then call them back in a GOTV effort (get out the vote) in the final days before the election. Voters in Plaistow are also likely to get color postcards urging a Yes vote on the warrant question. Unfortunately, the anti-big box side seems to be very laid back in their approach, and definitely doesn’t have the money to go head-to-head with Wal-Mart. In some ballot questions, Wal-Mart had spent between $250,000 and $500,000. That kind of spending won’t be necessary in little Plaistow, but the giant retailer will far outspend the locals, and try to buy its way into Plaistow with direct phoning, mailings, radio and print ads. David Averill seems oblivious to it all. “It’s not like crowds with pitchforks are coming out over this,” Averill naively said. “All you can do is reach out and let people know it’s a safety issue and it’s just changing the character of Main Street. It’s a bad site to develop.” The wife of a selectman in town told the newspaper that she got her Wal-Mart ‘survey’ call last week. “They just said they were taking a survey to see who wanted a Wal-Mart and who didn’t. And before I answered, I asked him if there were more pros than cons. He said more people seemed to be against it. Then he said we have a tight little community and I said, ‘Yes, and we’re proud of it’.” Plaistow Planning Board member Peter Bealo says he is against the Wal-Mart proposal. “I think we have to take control of Main Street,” he said. Bealo filed a petition to convert a section of Main Street from a state road to a town road. But his petition was later amended to require a study of the impact of reclassifying the entire length of Main Street, to be completed by Dec. 1, 2009. But the Chairman of the Selectman, John Sherman, didn’t mince his words. He told the Eagle Tribune that if people don’t want Wal-Mart, they should simply vote against the citizen’s petition. Citizen Wal-Mart used its attorney to oversee a signature collecting drive to put this issue of rezoning on the Town Meeting warrant. In past cases, Wal-Mart has hired signature gatherers to stand in front of post offices and grocery stores and collect signatures for a new supercenter. It is not hard to get voters to sign such petitions. The company then mails full color fliers to every voter extolling the jobs and taxes that will allegedly come from this project. But in this case, Plaistow voters are smart enough to realize that if rezoning for a supercenter is approved, the ‘old’ Wal-Mart store on Plaistow Road will be shut down, and could sit empty for years, since there is not much call for large retailers in small towns — especially in this economy. Furthermore, the only added value a supercenter brings to Plaistow is another grocery store, since the discount store merchandise already exists at the current Wal-Mart. Because the population base in Plaistow is stagnant, another grocery store will simply capture sales from Shaw’s supermarkets, or some of the smaller grocery stores in the trade area. This is not an economic development project. Readers are urged to contact the Selectmen in Plaistow by emailing Board of Selectman Chairman John Sherman through his Executive Secretary, Ruth Jenne at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Sherman and Selectmen, I am writing to urge you to speak out forcefully at the March 10th Town Meeting against the Wal-Mart’s ‘citizen’s’ petition. As you know, there are 11 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Plaistow, of which two are supercenters. The town’s population based has not changed much at all in the past 20 years. All the new superstore will do is cause the existing Wal-Mart on Plaistow Road to close — and maybe take one other grocery store with it. This means the town could be left with at least two empty retail stores. Rezoning land for one developer is a bad precedent, and undermines the whole intent of having a zoning code: to protect orderly development. This project is way too large for Plaistow, and represents the kind of corporate excesses that disregards local community needs just to make an extra buck. Wal-Mart could simply take their existing store and convert it into a superstore. This would be much more compatible with town zoning, and not require any rezoning of land, or leave empty buildings behind. This proposal is just the wrong size, and the wrong location for a big box suburban store.”