On January 21, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the endgame for Wal-Mart Canada was approaching in the city of Stratford, Ontario. The battle has come down to eastside versus westside. Wal-Mart Canada, after six years of resistance and outright rejection, was still trying to push its way into the city of Stratford — a unique Victorian city of about 32,000 people in Mid-western Ontario. Stratford has a retail development in the east end of the city on a major east-west highway, comprising a Zeller’s (a Canadian version of Target), Sears, Canadian Tire, Winners and a number of other smaller retailers, located in two shopping centers across the road from each other. There is a 36 acre site behind the one shopping centre that is zoned industrial that was purchased by First Pro, the developer for Wal-Mart. There are two existing Wal-Marts and a scheduled superstore within 25 miles of Stratford. On the advice of its consultants, the City had prepared Official Plan Amendment (OPA) 10, which would reinforce the present zoning and legislate the consultants’ recommendations of requiring future retail development to locate in the west end of the city. Under a thinly veiled threat of taking the city to the Ontario Municipal Board, FirstPro managed to get a deferral on passing OPA 10. That was in February 2004. On June 28, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that a Canadian citizens group in Stratford was reaching out for help to stop this proposed Wal-Mart project. The group Stratford First wrote: “We are writing to solicit your support in our campaign against Wal-Mart and its developer First Pro. First Pro acquired a 64-acre parcel of land in the east end of this city. The parcel has been zoned industrial for many years. The city commissioned a study by Robin Dee & Associates which concluded that the arrival of another big box store would seriously harm the other retailers in Stratford. It further concluded that if we could not stop the arrival of a big box store, we should insist that it locate in a vacant industrial site downtown or at a site in the west end of the city.” On October 19, 2007, we reported that the 112,000 s.f. Wal-Mart project came before local officials for a vote. More than 100 anti-Wal-Mart protestors were there, wearing t-shirts that read, “Roll Back Wal-Mart.” The city’s planning and heritage committee voted 7-4 to keep Official Plan Amendment 10 as is. Stratford’s Mayor at the time, Dan Mathieson, who had been careful not to reveal his position on the subject, ultimately was the 7th vote against the project. “I waited it out,” he told the media, “and looked at the expert reports and made sure every piece of information available was taken into consideration. Everyone had the opportunity over three years to review expert information, to attend public meetings and to hear all sides,” he said. “People thought we were slow, but at the end of today, at the last public meeting, we were able to make the best decision that affects the future vision of the city.” When the Council voted to deny First Pro’s application, the developer appealed the matter to the Ontario Municipal Board. Stratford First, produced more than 3,000 signed cards opposed to this development. The City Centre group, representing downtown retailers, is also strongly opposed. There have been two more consultants’ reports tabled since then that bluntly describe First Pro’s reports as “misleading”. The Stratford Council scheduled a meeting scheduled for November 26, 2008 to reconsider the whole issue. Steve Landers from Stratford First, filed the following report with Sprawl-Busters on the following day: “We had another council meeting in Stratford last night. Council voted 7-4 in favor of retaining the existing zoning under Official Plan Amendment 10. This rejects the Wal-Mart application for a change in zoning on property in the East End, so the whole matter will now go to the Ontario Municipal Board in January, 2009.” During the Council hearings, FirstPro said it was dedicated to Stratford, and that it would be spending $40 million on construction, and that Wal-Mart would hire 400 people and pay property taxes of $1.5 million. The OMB case was expected to last 35 days, with a decision by March of 2009. All along the city held firm its desire to reject a big box store on the east end, preferring that the store be on the city’s expanding west end. But Wal-Mart still wanted the east. This week, the Beacon Herald newspaper reports that the city made its final argument before the OMB in the Wal-Mart appeal of OPA 10. The city’s lawyer said that the city began the process of reviewing its commercial structure and planning policy in 1999 when it became clear that there was a need to respond to changing commercial circumstances. The lawyer told the OMB that the Wal-Mart project on the east side of the city seeks to impose a commercial structure on the city that the city council does not support. The hearing, the city’s lawyer said, was not about preventing Wal-Mart from coming to Stratford, and was not an arbitrary political decision, or unfair to the developer. The city council made a decision based on the advice of expert consultants. OPA 10 was passed not in response to a particular project, but to the “commercial evolution” that was changing Stratford. The city maintains that the project is also incompatible with the city’s Official Plan, which dates back to 1993. The lawyer for the developer is expected to begin three days of testimony in favor of the Wal-Mart project, which will then end the OMB hearings.
This process in Stratford has been dragged on by Wal-Mart for nearly six years. Rather than try to build what the community wants — Wal-Mart and its developer continue to push for what they want — over the objections of local residents and the City Council. Most other companies would have negotiated something years ago — but Wal-Mart is running a marathon show in Stratford, hoping that the other side will simply get worn out. The city argues that Wal-Mart knew what the city’s rules were, and that the developer “simply determined to take its chances, plain and simple, end of story.” Readers are urged to email the Mayor and Council in the City of Stratford by going to their website: www.city.stratford.on.ca. Send them the following message: “Dear Members of the Stratford City Council, Congratulations on your continuing battle to keep industrial land in Stratford zoned for industrial purposes. Stand up against the Wal-Mart project to the end of the OMB process. The developer has no right to a rezoning of this land. Thank you for once again voting against this Wal-Mart project, and I hope the full Council will urge the developer to either look to the location on the west end of the city, or darken some other community’s door. There simply is no market need for an additional Wal-Mart in the Stratford trade area. Wal-Mart brings neither jobs nor revenue to Stratford, and will undermine your efforts to strengthen the downtown. I believe that the city will prevail at the OMB level, and that Wal-Mart will have wasted more than six years trying to locate where citizens don’t want them to be. A good corporate citizen would have moved on by now, but Wal-Mart does not leave unless it is forced to leave. Your city council did not cave into Wal-Mart’s legal pressure, and you put the needs of Stratford residents first. If Wal-Mart won’t settle for the west, let them pack their bags and go.”