Is it possible to buy votes with hot dogs? A developer in Heber City, Utah used hot dogs and soda to try to influence the outcome of a referendum on big box development yesterday — — with very mixed results. Despite a massive outpouring of corporate spending, Wal-Mart barely squeaked by in the referendum vote in Heber City, Utah. Out of 2,760 votes cast, 1,327 Heber residents (48%) voted against removing an existing cap of 60,000 s.f. on retail stores in the city. A total of 1,433 (52%) voted to remove the cap. The margin of difference was only 2%, or 106 votes. That means if only 54 votes had changed to No, the cap would have been maintained. Wal-Mart and its developer, the Boyer company, spent an undisclosed sum of money on a corporate barrage of full page ads, radio spots, mailers, automated phone calls — and even a free lunch — to blitz Heber City voters. When the final campaign spending figures are revealed, local residents will be shocked to see how much Wal-Mart and Boyer spent per vote. The citizen’s group, Put Heber Valley First, had a very limited campaign budget to work with. The residents put the issue on the ballot to prevent a Wal-Mart superstore from building, trying to overturn a vote of the City Council last April to approve the supercenter that is more than double the 60,000 s.f. cap passed earlier by the city. The small town only has 10,200 people — about one-fifth of the population base needed to support a supercenter. “I look at the election results in a mixed way — — we lost, but this is not an open season for development,” Matt Heimburger, an organizer for Put Heber Valley First, told the Pine Bluff Commercial newspaper in Arkansas. “A lot of people still don’t want it.” The news of Wal-Mart’s slim margin of victory was not all good news for the company, however. Voters in Heber City tossed out three of the five City Council members who supported Wal-Mart. Two of the three new members elected to the Council ran on an anti-big box platform, while the third was neutral on the issue. The City Council is not expected to take up the Wal-Mart vote again, but two public officials were tossed out by anti-Wal-Mart candidates. The developer, testing whether Heber City was for sale to the highest bidder, even went so far as to hold a free lunch for the entire city — a catered lunch on the Saturday before the election. A spokesman for the Boyer company told the newspaper, “We served hot dogs and drinks — I’m not sure that’s buying the whole town. We had an open house for our site plan. I should add that many people in (the anti-Wal-Mart) organization did come over and get a free lunch.” If this superstore is ever built in Heber City, residents will learn first-hand that there is no free lunch when Wal-Mart arrives. Wal-Mart emerges from this vote as damaged goods because of their weak margin of victory.
This infusion of corporate money demonstrates once again the need for campaign finance reform that limits corporate spending on local initiatives. Citizens groups often are holding bake sales or car washes trying to compete with deep-pocketed developers and large retailers. In this case, there is no doubt that if Put Heber Valley First had access to the same level of spending as Boyer and Wal-Mart, the outcome yesterday would have been different. Over the years, Wal-Mart has learned that its best chance to win is to dramatically out-spend local residents. In effect, money from Arkansas was used to buy Wal-Mart’s way into Heber City — — but they almost lost in the face of all that money. Boyer and Wal-Mart spent heavily on its referendum campaign with multiple telephone calls, direct mailers every other day, full page color ads in the local newspaper and radio advertising. Some people might call this corporate free speech, but in fact is very expensive speech, and it unfairly influences local elections by giving out-of-state corporations a decided advantage. It should be embarrassing for Wal-Mart to report to stockholders that they just spent a vast sum of money (which will be revealed within a few weeks) to win in a city with 48% of the populace against them. What other retailer on the globe would evoke such a strong negative reaction? This vote also makes it obvious to everyone in Heber City that this was not just a “special interest” group — this was 48% of the people who went to the polls. Wal-Mart likes to claim that only a “vocal minority” doesn’t want them, but votes like Heber City shows that the city is almost split down the middle on this issue. If you remove the lopsided spending on advertising and visibility by the developer and retailer, Put Heber Valley First would have been first in the outcome. Congratulations to all the citizens involved in Put Heber Valley First, who showed the rest of Utah, and the nation, that opposition to Wal-Mart superstores is sizable, and more than just a handful of protesters. Wal-Mart did not walk away with a victory in Heber City. Their image was once again tarnished by the extent of opposition to their stores. Wal-Mart superstores have become the retail equivalent of a nuclear waste dump. To even maintain a hope of winning, Wal-Mart has to spend money like a drunken sailor to buy their way into small town America.