Up Against the Wal
Anti-sprawl crusader Al Norman helps St. Albans think outside the box
It's a pleasant summer evening for a neighborhood barbecue at Hudak Farm in Swanton. Inside the main greenhouse, the Raging Grannies are in full bloom. An all-women singing troupe decked out in splashy sundresses and flowery hats, the Grannies are just about to perform. One hundred or so residents from the greater St. Albans area are seated around them on lawn chairs and empty plant racks. Outside, scavenging boys are picking clean the last of the free hot dogs, sodas and homemade brownies.
A group called the Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth has organized this barbecue to let folks in the area discuss the pros and cons of a Wal-Mart store being proposed for a site down the road on Route 7. When the Grannies step up to the microphone, it's easy to imagine these older women working as "greeters" at the front door of the new Wal-Mart -- that is, until they begin singing. Their first ditty, sung to the tune of "Three Blind Mice," is a little social commentary about the world's largest corporation:
Wal-Mart sucks. Wal-Mart sucks,
The life out of towns, the life out of towns.
Downtown merchants have to close their doors,
The local economy falls through the floors,
Because Wal-Mart sucks.
Another song, sung to the tune of "My Favorite Things," rails against the "Shirts from Honduras and Nikes from China/Clothes made in sweatshops in North Carolina." Other numbers skewer the discount retailer for selling cheap goods and offering non-union jobs that pay low wages. Supposedly, the barbecue was open to everyone, regardless of their support for or opposition to the proposed store. But based on the crowd's enthusiastic applause -- not to mention the numerous "No Sprawl-Mart" stickers on people's lapels -- there's no mistaking the prevailing opinions.
Enjoying the performance from the wings is the evening's featured speaker: Al Norman, a 57-year-old anti-corporation crusader who has spent the last 11 years battling the incursion of big-box stores into small-town America. Norman, a Massachusetts resident whom "60 Minutes" once dubbed "the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement," thrives on these slices of rural Americana, right down to the chickens roosting in the rafters that periodically weigh in on the festivities with their cackling. It's this kind of homey merriment, Norman says, that emboldens a community to take on a large, multinational corporation.
And multinational corporations don't come any larger than Wal-Mart. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retail chain employs 1.5 million workers worldwide and has annual revenues larger than the gross domestic products of Israel and Ireland combined. The company's latest plan for Vermont is to build a 144,000-square-foot store on a 107-acre lot, an area more than twice the size of downtown St. Albans. Not everyone in the community thinks a discount center that big is a bargain for Franklin County.
Sprawl-busting isn't Norman's "career," or even his primary source of income -- it's his passion. He's the founder of an Internet-based nonprofit group called Sprawl-Busters, which serves as an information clearinghouse on suburban build-out. The site (www.sprawl-busters.com) includes a "battle response form" for concerned citizens who have never fought a big-box store before. In the last decade, he has helped dozens of communities from Ocala, Florida, to Hood River, Oregon, defeat proposed box stores which, Norman contends, promote sprawl, consume open space, drive locally owned retail stores out of business, destroy downtowns and homogenize the landscape.
Norman doesn't have to go looking for these fights. They come to him. Each day, he receives two or three emails from communities he's never heard from before -- about 1000 a year -- asking for his help in fighting a proposed box store. Over the years, he's done his part to help save Mayberry -- literally. Several years ago, he got a phone call from Andy Griffith, asking for his help in fighting a Food Lion grocery store that was trying to move into Griffith's hometown of Manteo, North Carolina. The store was eventually defeated.
Norman has plenty of other targets in his crosshairs. "In my opinion, Home Depot is just Wal-Mart with a hammer," he says. "Lowe's is a blue Home Depot and Target is just Wal-Mart with an attitude." But without a doubt, he's aimed his most virulent attacks at Wal-Mart. Norman has written two books on the company, Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart and The Case Against Wal-Mart.
Most of the time, Norman isn't paid for his work unless he has to travel. He isn't accepting a dime to help stop the St. Albans Wal-Mart. For him, this fight is personal. Norman's mother-in-law grew up on a local farm, and his aunt still lives in the area. For the last 25 years Norman, his wife and two daughters have spent their summers at a camp the family owns on Lake Champlain.
Norman had his first skirmish with "the Behemoth of Bentonville" in 1993, when he helped defeat a proposed Wal-Mart store in his hometown of Greenfield, Massachusetts. He sees many similarities between that battle and this one. Like St. Albans, Greenfield had an Ames department store for years that eventually went out of business, leaving the small, rural town without a large retailer of household goods. Like St. Albans, Greenfield defeated a proposed Wal-Mart once before, only to see the corporation return a decade later and try again. And, just as there's already a Wal-Mart in Williston, Greenfield has a Wal-Mart store located about 20 miles to its south. Many Greenfield residents now argue that a new, closer Wal-Mart would be more convenient and save them time and money. Norman is sympathetic but unconvinced.
"Ultimately, this isn't just about stores. This is about big corporations lording it over small towns," Norman says. "I've lived in rural areas now for about 30 years and they are always the targets for big development schemes that usually make no sense." Small towns are easy prey, he adds, because they often have an inviting combination of cheap land and weak zoning laws. They usually also lack the experience, money and political muscle to wage a protracted battle against a large corporation.
New England has been rocky terrain for Wal-Mart in recent years. In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the entire Green Mountain State on its 2004 list of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places." Along with Nine Mile Canyon in Utah, the Bethlehem Steel plant in Pennsylvania, the tobacco barns of southern Maryland, and the final resting place of America's favorite champion racehorse, Seabiscuit, Vermont is now seen as a place at risk of forever losing its historic appeal. The culprit, according to the National Trust, is Wal-Mart. The last time the National Trust included the Green Mountain State on its annual list, in 1993, there were no Wal-Marts in the state. Today, there are four.
Norman is surprised that the company would be bold enough to take another stab at moving into St. Albans, especially considering the long and costly battle it lost there once before. In 1993, the chain proposed building a smaller store in St. Albans -- a 126,000-square-foot store on 44 acres of land. The town planning commission and zoning board both supported that project. But an independent economic study of Wal-Mart's potential impact on the area projected that the new store would be a financial bust for the area. It predicted a net loss of 200 retail jobs in Franklin County, a decline in downtown business, an increase in the number of store vacancies, depressed commercial real-estate values and lower property-tax revenues. In short, the study concluded that every dollar of public revenue generated by Wal-Mart would cost taxpayers $2.50.
In December 1994, the Vermont Environmental Board rejected the St. Albans Wal-Mart project, ruling that its potential costs far outweighed any alleged benefits. The developer sued and took the case to the Vermont Supreme Court. In August 1997, the court upheld the Environmen-tal Board's decision.
Not much has changed in seven years, Norman contends, except for the size of the proposal. This time, Wal-Mart wants to build a 144,000-square-foot store on a 107-acre lot. And if this one gets approved, Norman predicts, within a year or two, Wal-Mart will come back asking to build another 50,000 square feet for a grocery store and/or gasoline station, as the company has done at other locations around the country.
"Size matters. If this were a 20,000-square-foot store, I wouldn't be here and no one would be talking about it," says Norman. "But the scale is totally inappropriate. This is something that would be big even for the New Jersey Turnpike. It just doesn't make any sense."
Not everyone at the barbecue agrees. Larry Carlson, a retired Boise-Cascade mill worker from St. Albans, has come to hear what his neighbors are saying. Unlike many of them, Carlson wants to see the Wal-Mart built because he doesn't like having to drive 45 minutes or more to buy clothes. "I wouldn't mind if it was a Target or another store," Carlson says. "But Wal-Mart is the classic success story, and I want to hitch my wagon to a winning star."
Earlier in the day, Carlson heard Norman interviewed on a local radio station. One caller accused Norman of "class bias" for trying to prevent the discount store from coming to town. Carlson agrees. "I think he's very anti-business and elitist," Carlson says about Norman. "And I don't like outsiders telling us what to do."
Norman gets that a lot. "His assumption is that only rich people hate Wal-Mart," he explains. "But dollar for dollar, I could make more money being a bagger at Wal-Mart than going around to these kinds of locations."
Scanning the crowd, it's hard to get an accurate read on the prevailing politics. Generally speaking, the "anti-sprawl" movement is associated with left-leaning causes, and certainly many progressives hate Wal-Mart because of its low-wage, non-union jobs, the frequent allegations of sweatshop labor, racial and gender discrimination, and so forth. But the folks who have come to hear Norman's talk don't necessarily fit the liberal mold.
"We've got people here that are flatlanders, died-in-the-wool native Vermonters, brand-new newcomers, and people who moved to Vermont to get away from it all," notes Sue Knightes with Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth. Knightes has lived in St. Albans for 34 years. Like many of her neighbors, she opposes the proposed Wal-Mart because she's concerned that it will hurt the downtown -- something she saw the malls do 20 years ago in her hometown of Schenectady, New York.
Such broad-based opposition to the superstore is common, according to Norman. In his experience, the "politics of shopping" can be deceptive. True, Wal-Mart is known as a conservative, right-wing corporation that donates about 95 percent of its PAC money to Republican candidates. But in his experience, "I often find that Democrats are pro-sprawl and Republicans more conservative about land use." For example, Norman often finds that older, lifelong members of a community with more conservative politics have "a stronger sense of place," whereas newer transplants often buy into the myth that more stores and strip malls mean more progress.
Attitudes towards big-box development can also cross ideological lines when it comes to the topic of taxes, Norman says. Fiscal conservatives often take issue with the amount of public assistance large corporations receive. Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat, once calculated that the typical Wal-Mart Supercenter employing 200 workers costs the American taxpayer $420,750 a year in earned-income tax credits, housing subsidies and food stamps for their workers. And a recent study by the advocacy group Good Jobs First found that nationwide, Wal-Mart has benefited from more than $1 billion in taxpayer assistance.
Norman warns Vermonters about what he calls Wal-Mart's "exotic tax-sheltering technique." The St. Albans store will most likely be owned by the Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust of Delaware. This separate business entity pays royalties to Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., then writes them off as a business expense, thus reducing its state income tax burden. Currently, this loophole -- which is used by other large corporations as well -- costs Vermont between $7 million and $14 million a year in lost revenues.
"Why should we, as taxpayers, give Wal-Mart incentives, for a company that had $9 billion in profits last year?" Norman asks. "It's ridiculous."
And, as Wal-Mart rolls back its tax burden, it's also gobbling up real estate. The company's investment material describes "an aggressive growth" policy for fiscal 2004, which includes plans for 50 to 55 new discount stores, 220 to 230 new Supercenters, and 35 to 40 new Sam's Clubs nationwide. The company's plan this year is to increase its retail space by approximately 50 million square feet, an 8 percent increase over Wal-Mart's existing indoor acreage of 606 million square feet. That translates into a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new Wal-Mart store every day.
But Norman's anti-box-store campaign has had an impact on the company's coffers. By his own estimate, delaying one Wal-Mart Superstore for one year can cost the company between $60 million and $100 million in lost sales. And the cost of defeating a store entirely can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The anti-sprawl movement is making headway. Speaking recently to a local newspaper about a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in Tega Cay, South Carolina, a corporate spokesman made a rare admission, saying, "Wal-Mart has been running into increased difficulty getting supercenters open."
How is this happening? One of the effective tools used by small communities around the country has been to limit the size of all new construction, Norman says. The town of St. Albans could put a 60,000-square-foot cap on all new commercial buildings, and require that no single floor be bigger than 30,000 square feet. Another effective tool, he adds, is to require that these companies post a demolition bond to cover the cost of removing the building, should the store go out of business. As he puts it, "St. Albans can stop sprawl with one sentence."
But like stopping the drug trade or America's enormous dependency on foreign oil, checking sprawl also requires checking demand. Until Americans lose their appetite for cheap consumer goods, the caterpillars won't stop crawling across the farmlands, leaving big-box stores in their wake.
It's early afternoon at Taft Corners in Williston, and traffic is backed up nearly a quarter-mile to I-89. After four cycles of green lights, the line of cars finally turns the corner and makes its way into the Wal-Mart parking lot, which is more than three-quarters filled.
Inside, the store is buzzing with activity. Shoppers are pushing carts stacked with various personal items: diapers, shampoo, tampons, antifreeze. Near a row of cash registers, there's a display shelf of box fans on sale for $10.97, right next to the 80-ounce pickles jars, on sale for $2.88 apiece. A teenager in baggy pants jogs past, juggling two footballs and a dodgeball he's picked out of a large bin. All were made in China.
Nearby, model Hummers are on sale for $244.44, not far from the Ronald Reagan commemorative calendars and the American flags. Overhead, the "Wal-Mart TV Network" monitor is showing a demonstration of fly rods and fishing nets, interspersed with photos of missing children. Presumably they're not missing somewhere in the store, though it would be easy to lose a kid in the labyrinth of aisles.
Why are so many shoppers drawn to Wal-Mart? For most of those asked, it boils down to three basic reasons: First, the prices are low. Second, as one Burlington woman puts it, "They've got everything I need, and more." Finally -- this was particularly relevant for those who drove more than 15 or so miles -- there aren't many other options left. As Jim Rogers of Monkton says, "It's about the only place around here for what I need."
Norman hears that common theme from coast to coast. He's not suggesting that Americans go back to living like Henry David Thoreau. But he does say that we need to go on a "mega-store diet" and curb our appetite for unnecessary goods that devour our resources, clutter our landfills, and increase our dependence on foreign oil.
"Americans do two things in excess: We eat too much and we shop too much," Norman says. "For many people, their sense of community is no bigger than their shopping cart. They couldn't care less about the quality of life in their community, or if it turns into an asphalt strip mall. All they want is their cheap underwear."