Merchants in Vinita, Oklahoma report that city officials are so covetous of expanding their Wal-Mart that they are seeking a $50,000 “emergency” grant to help towards the installation costs of a $138,000 sewer line. It apparently has not occurred to Vinita Mayor Joe Johnson that maybe the world’s largest retailer could toss in a few bucks for the infrastructure costs. The Mayor has been coy about who the “large business” is that wants to move in next to the Holiday Inn, but he told the Vinita Daily Journal “the prospective business could possibly employ up to 350 people, which would be good for our local economy.” Wal-Mart typically would not confirm interest in the site. The Mayor of Vinita clearly has not reviewed his own state’s history with Wal-Mart supercenters, or he might choose his words about growth more carefully. Vinita already has a Wal-Mart discount store, which likely would close when a superstore is built. Oklahoma currently has 14 dead Wal-Mart’s in Oklahoma, which places that state in the top 15 states for empty Wal-Marts. It was Oklahoma that attracted the attention of the New York Times on March 5, 1995, when it ran a feature article about 3 Oklahoma towns that saw their discount Wal-Mart shut down when a superstore located in another community. “They were not playing fair,” said Bryan Lee, who at the time was the President of the First National Bank in Nowata, OK. “They came in and ravaged all the small businesses. And when it came to the point where they were not satisfied, they left.” Some Vinita businessmen obviously see that the “emergency” facing their hometown is how to save the jobs that Wal-Mart will destroy if a supercenter opens, subsidized by taxpayers.The manager of the existing Wal-Mart in Vinita agrees with the Mayor. “I do think that if one (supercenter) came in to this town, it could turn the town around.” I guess that the one existing Wal-Mart store in Vinita was not enough to ‘turn the town around’, but maybe a bigger one will do the trick. It’s an interesting theory.
Does Vinita Mayor Joe Johnson have any data to support his superficial notion that a supercenter “would be good for our local economy”? Will he ask for an economic impact study to test his theory, or will he still feel the same after local food centers in his community close? The truth is that most local officials are wholly unprepared to assess the impact of sprawl development on their community. In Oklahoma and elsewhere, the supercenters have come to close down the existing discount stores and grocery stores, and the record suggests that there is plenty of economic displacement that comes with them. The idea of throwing tax payers money towards these projects to subsidize wealthy corporations, seems to be more of an “emergency” crisis of local leadership than anything else.