Everywhere Wal-Mart has stepped along the seacoast of New Hampshire, controversy has followed. In towns like Stratham and Exeter, New Hampshire, Sprawl-Busters worked with local residents to oppose Wal-Mart superstores. Today local merchants in the coastal community of Newmarket contacted Sprawl-Busters in response to a newspaper story that the giant retailer is now looking at Newmarket. You couldn’t pick a more unlikely place for a superstore. This town of roughly 8,000 people describes itself as having “white church steeples, old mill buildings, a dammed river, park land with nature walks, and good road access to beaches, skiing and golfing, Newmarket is an ideal place to work and live.” This scenic mill town along the banks of the Lamprey River and Great Bay has also been planning for nearly ten years to revitalize its existing downtown. The Main Street Reconstruction Project is the result of an extensive public process that grew out of the work of a group called the Newmarket Tomorrow Committee, which was formed by the Town Council in 1999 to formulate a vision for the future development of Downtown Newmarket. The town also recreated a Downtown Business Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District in 1998 for the purpose of financing the investment needed to attract new development and revitalize the downtown and the mills. At the time of its creation, the assessment level of all properties located within the TIF District established the tax revenue that would continue to go into the Town’s General Fund. Taxes from any subsequent increase in property value would go into the TIF Fund. These “incremental taxes” are not subject to County or State education taxes, so all of the money stays in Newmarket. Town voters approved bonding authority of $2.0 million in 1998 and $2.5 million in 2003 to help improve the downtown. Despite all this focus on the core downtown, and local businesses, the Exeter News-Letter reports that Wal-Mart is sniffing around the edges of Newmarket. “I have been told there is work being done to evaluate a site in town (for a potential Wal-Mart store),” said town Planner Diane Hardy. “No paperwork has been filed with us yet.” The newspaper also cited a Planning Board member confirming that Wal-Mart is definitely looking at Newmarket as a possible location for a new store. “The town manager mentioned it to (the members of the board),” the local board member said. “He was kind of informing us it’s in the works.” Wal-Mart, as ususal, denied any specific plans for Newmarket, just as they did in Stratham and Exeter, where they encountered strong local opposition. “While Wal-Mart is interested in the entire southern New Hampshire area, we have not publicly announced plans for Newmarket,” said the company’s senior manager for public affairs. The site Wal-Mart wants, local merchants told us, is the Rockingham Country Club and Golf Course, located at the corner of Route 108 and Ash Swamp Road. The golf club owner denied any knowledge of the plan. “As far as I know, Wal-Mart is not coming here,” she said. Score that comment as a double-bogey.
Wal-Mart’s entry into small towns is not done through a front-page story in the newspaper. The retailer will work quietly for months, talking with the town manager, talking informally with local officials or planning board members. When the story leaks out, Wal-Mart routinely says they have announced no plans — which is not the same as saying they have no plans. In this case, a superstore on an open tract of land along a major highway makes no sense for the rest of the Newmarket business community. Local officials may see no contradiction between a downtown tax district, and a downtown revitalization project, but Wal-Mart will undermine both projects by siphoning traffic and money out of the downtown. Because no plan has been filed yet, local residents could ask the town to adopt a cap of 75,000 s.f. on the size of retail buildings. This movement should be led by members of the town council. Readers are urged to call the Newmarket town council at 603-659-3617 with the following message: “Before you let Wal-Mart come in and ruin your downtown revitalization efforts, put a cap on the size of all retail buildings located outside of the central commercial district downtown.” To see Wal-Mart’s track record in New Hampshire, search Newsflash by the name of the state.