Wal-Mart wants to cut down the size of its proposed superstore in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, but the wasteful aspects of this land deal still loom large. To build the new store, the existing Wal-Mart discount store may have to be torn down. It doesn’t appear that any local officials asked the basic question: “Why can’t you make do with the huge store you already have in our town?” On July 18, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that officials in the small town of Hinsdale, New Hampshire had learned that their “old” 105,000 s.f. Wal-Mart discount store most likely would be torn down so that the retailer could build a 198,000 s.f. superstore roughly one mile away. The owner of the existing property at George’s Field, where the “old” discount store now sits, told Hinsdale officials that she was close to signing a lease termination agreement with the company. She also said the building may have to be torn down and replaced with smaller buildings because no other owner could make full use of it. “The most important thing is lease termination, so I can start marketing the property and get other tenants in there,” the owner, Deborah George, told the Brattleboro Reformer. “I think, ultimately, that building is going to have to come down. I don’t think there’s anybody who could fully use the box without leaving half of it vacant.” Wal-Mart is getting out of its lease with George 10 years early. The company also had three 10 year options to renew. George said the tentative agreement would allow her to lease the space to another company 60 days after Wal-Mart moves to its new location. She said in 2007 that Wal-Mart planned to make the move in June 2009 — but Wal-Mart is now at least a year and a half behind schedule — in fact its plans still have not been finalized. George told the Hinsdale Planning Board that with her agreement with Wal-Mart done, she supported the building of the new Wal-Mart, even though it will leave her without an anchor tenant. Neighbors in Hinsdale told the Planning Board in 2007 that they were concerned about traffic at the store, but the neighbors were not organized, didn’t have a land use attorney, and posed no serious threat to Wal-Mart’s engineers. The site location is just north of the Hinsdale Greyhound Park, a dog racing track. A new traffic light will have to be placed to accommodate the thousands of new car trips passing the site. The engineering firm told residents they will only have to wait 35 seconds to exit their properties. Of course, residents were assured that new traffic would “not be significant.” In the initial review phase, the Planning Board said they had concerns over Wal-Mart’s use of the huge, 972 space “parking field” to allow truck containers and outdoor sales. They also expressed concerns with the “old” Wal-Mart, which had chronic problems with its on-site septic system. “I would hope that as a new store and a super center, you’d want it to look nicer than the current one does,” said one Selectman. The original Hinsdale Wal-Mart discount store was built roughly in 1992, so the store is only 15 years old. This week, although the new store was supposed to be ready by now, Wal-Mart approached the town and asked for a down-sized store. Wal-Mart said it wanted to a number of changes to the site plan to adjust to the retailer’s new building style. “There’s a lot of similarities from the last plan,” said a representative from the engineering consultant for Wal-Mart. “Since the building is smaller, we need fewer parking spaces,” the engineer added. The Brattleboro Reformer says the new store will only need 694 parking spaces, and the spaces will be designed at a 60-degree angle, instead of the original 90-degree angle. A smaller building also allows the company to leave more open space on the property, which will now increase from 6.7 acres to 8 acres. Although the Reformer did not specify the size of the reduced store, an increase of 1.3 acres would amount to roughly 56,600 s.f. of reduced store. This new store will have its own waste water treatment tank in back of the store. The original store in George’s Field had major septic problems, and at one point, Wal-Mart asked the neighboring town of Brattleboro, Vermont to allow the store to hook up to Brattleboro’s sewage system. Town selectmen in Brattleboro refused. The Hinsdale Planning Board, as always, was very compliant with Wal-Mart’s request, and voted 6-1 to allow the company to shrink its store. According to the newspaper, fewer than 10 people attended the hearing. Most local residents assumed the project was already a done deal, but the proposed traffic light still rankled a few abutters. The Planning Board said they were powerless to control the placement of the traffic light, which is handled by the state. “There’s nothing we can do about (it) at this point,” the Planning Board Chairman said. “It’s really out of our hands.” And so, it seems, is the entire project.
Ironically, the same Planning Board is asking town residents to comment on the new “vision statement” in the Hinsdale Master Plan update. Having just approved the largest retail building in the town’s history — a project totally out of keeping with this small town’s heritage — the town is working on a new vision statement. It seems that planners want to know what the key issues are on residents’ minds. The Wal-Mart project in Hinsdale is an example of the mindless leap-frog development that occurs in communities that have no vision for land use. The ‘old’ Wal-Mart store was only 15 years old. It could have been reformatted, in what Wal-Mart calls an ‘in-box conversion’ to change it from a discount store to a superstore. Instead, Hinsdale passively followed the corporation’s lead and blessed its plans to abandon its old store mid-lease, and build the same store — somewhat bigger — just down the road. Since 1996, Wal-Mart has systematically closed roughly 56% of its discount stores in America. The company had 2,218 discount stores in 1996, but by 2008 the discount store count had fallen to 971. A number of these stores have been “converted” to superstores — but many were just vacated. At any point in time, Wal-Mart has 200 or more “dark stores” on the market for sale or lease. Many of these stores were built in the 1990s. When Wal-Mart owns the store (or rents it from itself), they can leave at any time. In messy cases like the Hinsdale situation, where they had signed a long-term lease, the retailer has often ended up in court being sued for breach of contract. The building owner in Hinsdale is most likely not paying to tear down the store, and that may be the best she can get out of Wal-Mart. But she has just lost 10 years of expected revenues. The wastefulness of this site-hopping of stores is unprecedented. No other retailer in the history of stores has built — and left — as many stores as Wal-Mart. In the Hinsdale case, the town of Brattleboro had no seat at the current discussions — yet most of the traffic will come through Brattleboro and over the Connecticut River bridge into Hinsdale. To add insult to injury, Brattleboro is now considering running a public bus service from downtown Brattleboro, to the new Wal-Mart superstore. This will further erode shopping dollars in their central downtown district. More than a year ago, Home Depot shut down its store on the outskirts of Brattleboro because of weak financial performance. The only difference between the existing Wal-Mart slated for demolition, and the larger superstore, is the grocery component. To gain more grocery market share, Wal-Mart is willing to tear down its existing store, and move a mile away. More foolish than this plan, is the role of the regulators. The Hinsdale Planning Board got lost in the discussion over traffic, and completely missed the absurdity of developing another large piece of land that brings absolutely no added economic value to the area, and leaves an old mall at risk of never recovering. Worse than “dark stores” are “dark regulators” who allow this kind of redundant development to occur. To tell the Hinsdale Planning Board how you feel about Wal-Mart’s leap-frog sprawl, call the Town Clerk’s office at 603-336-5719 with this message: “One Wal-Mart in Hinsdale was bad enough, but tearing down the existing store just to build a bigger one down the road, is just plain wasteful. Live free in New Hampshire — without more Wal-Mart sprawl.”