On January 2, 2005 Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was not too pleased with the Flagstaff, Arizona City Council when it passed a zoning code in 2004 that limited the scale of big box development. So Wal-Mart decided to act like a “citizen” and put the issue on the Flagstaff ballot. The Flagstaff law capped new or expanding retail stores at 125,000 square feet, required a conditional use permit on anything larger than 75,000 square feet and imposed an 8 percent limit on the amount of floor space a large retailer could devote to non-taxable grocery sales. After the City Council passed the new ordinance on a 5-2 vote, a Wal-Mart front group called “Protect Flagstaff’s Future” was formed to collect signatures for a referendum drive to see if voters would overturn the law. That special election happened in May of 2005 and was an all-mail ballot. By filing for the referendum, the new law was suspended until the May vote. A local Realtor who formed the new referendum group, told the media the group would spend about $100,000 on the campaign — with much of that money coming from large retailers — such as Wal-Mart. Supporters of the new law said it would protect union jobs at local grocery stores and would help keep Flagstaff development in human scale. The ordinance was narrowly overturned at the ballot box — not surprising, given the massive infusion of money into the campaign by Wal-Mart. In a Wal-Martocracy, the side with the most money wins — and that often is the case. This week, more than four years after the cap ordinance was removed, Wal-Mart on its own has cut its original superstore plan down to 54% of its original size. After lavishly spending to overturn a size cap, Wal-Mart on its own initiative proposed a superstore of 114,000 s.f., compared to its original plan of 212,000 s.f. The store as designed would not have triggered the threshold limit. As the Arizona Sun explains, “That still makes it a big store.” The proposed superstore now is slightly larger than the existing Wal-Mart discount store #1175 several miles away in West Flagstaff. The Arizona Sun charges that city officials in Flagstaff did not want the original Wal-Mart superstore plan, and the store was “buried in a blizzard of conditions and off-site traffic requirements.” But The Sun explains that “Wal-Mart was downsizing its new supercenters nationwide in response both to dwindling urban land and complaints from shoppers that the cavernous buildings were simply too intimidating.” The newspaper says that the 114,000 s.f. plan is “a building scaled to other big boxes, and with a grocery section no larger that existing supermarkets.” The design is even going to preserve the three ponderosa pines on the property. Wal-Mart has come to realize that it can build much smaller superstores (even saying now that they are comfortable with superstores half the size of the current project in Flagstaff) and make as much profit with a more efficient, compact store. Even at 114,000 s.f., this proposal is much larger than the rest of the grocery and department stores now in Flagstaff.
It would not be surprising now if the Wal-Mart discount store in West Flagstaff were put up for sale. Wal-Mart currently has three discount stores of similar size on the market in Arizona: a 108,000 s.f. store in Lake Havasu, a 129,000 s.f. store in Mesa, and a 110,500 s.f. store in Peoria, Arizona. With a population based of 60,000 s.f., Flagstaff does not need two Wal-Marts just miles apart, and the discount store is likely to be placed on the Wal-Mart Realty ‘dark store’ list. “Citizen” Wal-Mart used its corporate wealth to barely overturn a municipal law it doesn’t like. There are no financial limits on such municipal ballot questions, so Wal-Mart used a front group to funnel thousands of dollars to influence the voters. Large corporations have shown that hometown America is for sale to the highest bidder. In this case, it was Flagstaff. But tomorrow it could be your community. Wal-Mart has won some of these contests, and lost some of them. But in just about every case, they have outspent real citizens’ groups by six to one. If corporations were stripped of their right to be treated as a “citizen”, this kind of corporate bidding-game would be over. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled essentially that corporations have the same rights as “citizens” when it comes to First Amendment rights. The voters of Flagstaff almost didn’t cave into Wal-Mart, but in the end, Wal-Mart caved in to what the city wanted — a much smaller store. Readers are urged to contact Flagstaff Mayor Sara Presler at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Presler, Now that Wal-Mart has shrunk its superstore project to 54% of its original size, keep your eye on their store in West Flagstaff, a few miles away. It is very likely that their discount store will end up on the Wal-Mart Realty ‘dark store’ list, just like the discount stores in Lake Havasu, Mesa, and Peoria — all of which are close in size to the discount store in Flagstaff that could be abandoned. The city should have required Wal-Mart to post a demolition bond to cover the cost of tearing that store down if it remains empty for 12 consecutive months. Given your population of just over 60,000 people — Wal-Mart does not need two stores located just miles apart. So whatever jobs and taxes Flagstaff thought would be generated from this superstore, will largely come from existing grocers already doing business in Flagstaff, and Wal-Mart’s own existing discount store. In the end, this supercenter is not an economic development project at all, and makes about as much economic sense as inviting cannibals to dinner.”