When it comes to Wal-Mart supercenters, there are no “done deals,” only “dumb deals.” On April 8, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Mayor of the city of North Tonawanda, New York was thrilled with the idea of a Wal-Mart supercenter — before he had even gathered any data on the potential impact of the store on his community. His city has lost about 9% of its population since 1990. As of 2006, the city had just under 32,000 people. The city also has 6 Wal-Mart stores within 19 miles, including a Wal-Mart discount store 3 miles away in Amherst, New York, and a supercenter 10 miles away in Clarence, New York. North Tonawanda is located midway between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and is the second largest community in the County of Niagara. Historically, North Tonawanda was an important regional manufacturing center, but today, the city is focused on waterfront development, entertainment and tourism. Add to that list: Wal-Mart. Although this community has ample access to cheap Chinese imports, Wal-Mart is still pressuring city officials to let them build a superstore. Only one thing stands in the way: local residents. The retailer’s first proposal did not go over well, so the corporation fell back and came up with a “Plan B.” In early March, 2008, Wal-Mart’s supercenter proposal ran into a Wal of opposition at a public hearing. According to the Tonawanda News, at least 100 residents packed into the Grant Elementary School to protest the superstore. Although the chairman of the city’s Planning Commission told the audience that Wal-Mart was not the issue at hand, most people testifying made it clear that Wal-Mart was the problem. Most of the focus has been on the traffic problems that this store will create. Dave Seeger, a lawyer representing North Tonawanda First, the citizen’s group opposing Wal-Mart, challenged Wal-Mart’s typical assertion in its traffic “study” that a superstore would actually improve traffic in the area. “How does that happen?” Seeger asked the Planning Commission. “Answer: You cheat.” To counter North Tonawanda First, Wal-Mart cobbled together a “citizens” group called Lumber City Liaisons for Wal-Mart, which testified in favor of the plan. In April, the Wal-Mart project came before the Planning Commission. The city has hired the engineering firm Wendel Duchscherer to advise them on the project. North Tonawanda First has prepared an independent traffic study for the city to review. The New York State Department of Transportation has also submitted a letter on the traffic situation, pinpointing the intersection at Erie Avenue and Niagara Falls Boulevard as a major problem area, noting that traffic at the intersection will get worse in coming years. The city’s consultant recommended to the Planning Commission that they reject the North Tonawanda First request for a third public hearing on the proposal, arguing that Wal-Mart’s Plan B changes were not significant alterations in the plan. So counting cars appears to be the major bone of contention as this unnecessary project continues its local review. This week, the Tonawanda News reports that town officials are giving the Mayor what he wants. The Zoning Board of Appeals has approved two variances. Now the city will sell an access road to the site, to allow the plan to move forward. City planners, who work for the Mayor, have blessed the site plan, and are waiting for county planners to do the same. The land itself is zoned industrial. Wal-Mart’s lawyer was pleased with the resulting variances they had been granted. “After several meetings with the planning commission, we’ve developed the plan you see here. Your code is probably one of the most stringent I’ve seen anywhere,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer said. City ordinances required 1,825 parking spaces, but now that his been reduced to 915 at Wal-Mart’s request. The city requires 1 parking space for every 100 square feet of store. The dramatic reduction has been characterized as the lowest number Wal-Mart would accept for the 185,000 square foot store. The Zoning Board also had to approve the environmental impact findings that have already been approved by the city’s Planning Commission. Wal-Mart’s lawyer called the final reviews “mostly just mechanical.” It is hoped that if Wal-Mart gets its final approvals from the city council, that local residents will file an appeal that is ‘mostly just mechanical’ too.
Watching this case closely is Frank Budwey, the owner of an independent supermarket that would suffer financially if a Wal-Mart superstore were to open in North Tonawanda. Budwey owns two grocery stores: a 38,000 s.f. store in North Tonawanda; and a 51,000 s.f. store in Buffalo. Budwey told officials in nearby Newfane, New York that because of proposed Wal-Mart supercenters in the North Tonawanda area, he has decided that he will not open his independent grocery store in town. “I feel so bad, but we were limited in what we could do there,” he told The Buffalo News in April. “We did our homework, and we’re looking at putting more money into our North Tonawanda store. We’re looking at the possibility of a Wal-Mart Superstore coming into North Tonawanda, and we have to make our store as strong as possible to survive that hit. It’s hard to stay in business.” Budwey had been planning to open up a third store in Newfane in the site of a Shurfine grocery store, which was a family-owned operation that went out of business two months ago because of the competition from bigger chain grocery stores like Wal-Mart. The President of the Newfane business association admitted that residents in her town wanted a grocery store downtown. “We’re very disappointed, but we will be pursuing other grocery stores because Newfane does need a grocery store. We have to be creative. We’ve been thinking it has to go right here [in the Shurfine location], but maybe it doesn’t.” But Frank Budwey won’t be coming to Newfane — because of Wal-Mart. “We have to look at the competition,” he told the Buffalo News. “With a [potential] store in Newfane, we looked at the possibility of a Wal-Mart Superstore coming into Lockport… .We knew the Newfane store would be half the size of our North Tonawanda store, so we’d have limitations. The numbers did it. Another thing is that the equipment [at the Newfane site] is so old, it would all have to be replaced, and it gets to the point when I can’t make any money on it. We were hot to trot, and the landlord was working with us… but I looked at what I have on my plate, and this would take away from my two other stores. It’s too much of a risk for me.” Readers are urged to email North Tonawanda Mayor Larry Soos, at [email protected] with the following message: “Mayor Soos, Your city has focused on projects like the Ascension Industries expansion, which adds good paying jobs to your local economy, and the hotel project on Webster Street. But you stated in your State of the City address in February that the Wal-Mart project would “increase the city’s property tax base, increase sales tax dollars, create construction jobs and full and part-time jobs.” This is just not the case, and you have no evidence of any real boost to the local economy from a Wal-Mart. You already have 6 Wal-Marts within 19 miles of your city. A supercenter will merely put more pressure on stores like Budwey’s. If that store closes, you will have to subtract the jobs, property taxes and sales taxes lost from your Wal-Mart ‘gains.’ You listed Wal-Mart in your speech as an item of ‘unfinished business.’ ‘Continue to push for the construction of Wal-Mart in our community,’ you said. ‘The tax dollars, sales tax revenue, and jobs are needed in our community. This matter has been dissected and reviewed in all the proper forums and within all legal requirements. It is time that this matter be moved forward proactively.’ Not only are you wrong on the numbers, but such statements make it impossible for the citizens of North Tonawanda to expect a fair hearing from the Planning Commission. You have, in effect, given your blessing to a project before any of the real traffic and environmental impacts are even reviewed. I urge you to tell your constituents that you are reserving your opinion on this plan until all the facts are in, to maintain at least the appearance of impartiality and fairness. Wal-Mart is a form of economic displacement, not economic development, and building this huge supercenter will be a decision that local residents will regret for many years to come — until the Wal-Mart closes and leaves.”