On May 3rd, Portsmouth, Michigan voters approved a rezoning for a Wal-Mart supercenter. The vote spread between the two sides of the issue, however, was very small. The vote was 884 in favor, to 621 opposed, which means that if only 132 people had switched their vote to against, the measure would have been defeated. The Bay City Times, which had editorialized in favor of Wal-Mart, admitted that supporters were “surprised by the smaller-than-expected margin of victory.” When I spoke with Mark Stewart, an orthopedic surgeon who helped organize the Friends of Portsmouth Township, an anti-Wal-Mart group, he predicted that his side would lose. Stewart noted that his group had little money to work with, and not much time to pull together a campaign. “With a little more understanding about how to run a campaign, and some additional time, I know we could have won this campaign,” Stewart told me. As it was, Stewart expressed satisfaction with the level of support his effort drew. “We got 41% of the vote, which is pretty high when you consider that we were fighting a retail store, and not a nuclear waste dump.” Stewart reports that the local newspaper refused to run an anti-Wal-Mart newspaper ad placed by a local union. The township’s Board of Trustee’s voted in December to rezone 31 acres of farmland for the supercenter. Wal-Mart hopes to build a 187,000 s.f. store, plus gas station and two restaurants. Stewart said his group is reviewing its legal options against the store. According to a study done by the Friends group, Wal-Mart would damage wetlands and cause excessive water runoff. Opponents argued the store would bring with it crime, noise and traffic into this predominately agricultural community. A Wal-Mart spokesman said his company was “humbled” by the vote.
It is truly amazing that more than 4 out of 10 voters did not want a Wal-Mart supercenter in their community. In the precinct where the store itself would be located, the margin of difference was only 16 votes. This is a strong vote, considering that the Friends group was economically running on fumes. Wal-Mart may consider this vote a “humbling” victory, but in a very tangible way, Wal-Mart was also a loser of this vote, because the number of people against the store showed the opposition was much more than the “vocal minority” that Wal-Mart likes to suggest. 132 voters switching, and the Friends would have beaten the better-financed Wal-Mart. The retailer should be asking itself why so many people continue to go to the polls to vote them down. 41% of the voters is not exactly a fringe group. For earlier stories, search by “Portsmouth.”