On June 1, 2001, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents in the city of Ithaca, New York had spent the better part of the past decade fighting off big box developers — and all on the same parcel of scenic floodplain. First it was Wal-Mart, which tried to locate across from the Buttermilk Falls State Park. That proposal was defeated by the citizens group, Stop Wal-Mart, which prevailed against the company even when Wal-Mart sued through the courts. The developer at the time pulled out amid community opposition focused on issues such as employee wages and impact on local businesses. Buttermilk Park draws an estimated 200,000 visitors each year to watch its cascading waters. After Wal-Mart’s well-publicized defeat, the battle over Buttermilk was not over. The Widewaters development company of DeWitt, New York submitted a 200,000 s.f. shopping center anchored by a Target store every bit as nasty as the Wal-Mart that went over the falls. Widewaters plans for Buttermilk date back to 1999, when they sought a fill permit to dump 80,000 cubic yards of dirt to prepare the floodplain for something big — but a Target was not specified. With the help of Ithaca’s Mayor at the time, Alan Cohen, city officials bent over backwards to facilitate Widewaters’ application for an even larger project than the Wal-Mart the city rejected in the not so distant past. Mayor Cohen did what it could to avoid the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act, and paved the way for Widewaters to become a Buttermilk neighbor. The article notes that Widewaters contributed money to powerful state lawmakers, and that Hizzoner got rid of city officials who did not agree with this reversal of position on development in the viewshed. A Home Depot was eventually built where the Wal-Mart wanted to go. Eventually, Wal-Mart found another piece of land on Elmira Road, prevailed over citizen’s lawsuits, and built a 149,000 s.f. discount store in Ithaca. Now, several years later, Wal-Mart wants to convert its store into a larger supercenter. According to the Ithaca Journal, Wal-Mart wants to expand the store by one-third to add a grocery component. “The goal of this expansion is to better serve the needs of our customers in Ithaca by providing a great variety of products and services, including a full grocery center,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. The preliminary sketch plans will be presented this evening to Ithaca’s Planning Board at City Hall. The store would expand to the north onto a open field. The addition will add 39,000 s.f. The retailer has told local officials that Wal-Mart’s expansion will add 25 to 50 jobs — which is nowhere near the truth. Almost every job at the expanded store will be offset by job losses at other grocery store in the Ithaca area. Ithaca Planning Board Chairman John Schroeder said tonight’s review will be an initial presentation and there will be no votes on the project.
Wal-Mart wandered for years, like Ulysses, trying to get back to Ithaca. The company had to withdraw, and sail around again for a second attempt. It was a hard fought battle for the retailer, which stretched out for more than a decade. Now the company wants to increase its foothold in this community, where many people didn’t want them at any size. Readers are urged to email Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson at: [email protected] with the following message: “One Wal-Mart in Ithaca was hard-fought enough — but your city doesn’t need a larger one. The proposed Wal-Mart expansion in Ithaca is not a jobs or revenue project, because it will bring little of either. It also takes more open space, instead of reusing a brownfields site. The grocery jobs to be added on Elmira Road will eliminate grocery jobs at existing stores in Ithaca. One national study suggested that two grocery stores close for every one Wal-Mart superstore that opens. Please let the Planning Board know that adding more low wage jobs in the retail sector will not improve Ithaca’s economy, and a 24/7 supercenter will only add crime and traffic to your list of city’s problems. Residents in Ithaca have long felt that their community is special. There are more than 4,000 Wal-Mart stores, but only one Ithaca, New York. Which would you rather protect?”