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|The Walmart Battle Continues, Part Eight|
|Bill Hudson | 7/16/12|
|Back to the News Summaries|
|Read Part One|
Cynda and I rented a small apartment in Salida, Colorado at the beginning of June, to see what it was like to live in two places at once.
Salida, as we have found over the past six weeks, is attractive to retirees who receive a regular pension check, and to young families who can somehow survive on very little income. It’s a curiously historic, recreation-minded little town built beside a river, with just enough of a tourism economy to barely support about 5,000 people. To get here from the curiously suburban, recreation-minded little town of Pagosa Springs, you drive east and then north on two-lane highways, through a series of much smaller towns which are — from what I can tell — supported economically by the potato farmers of the San Luis Valley.
Like so many Americans, Cynda and I spend a great deal of our time lately, talking about ideas that center on the word, “economy.”
How can a person survive in Colorado, in times like these? Wages seem to be falling; prices seem to be rising; banks are hesitant to loan money; and our credit cards are maxed out.
Maybe it would help to have a big discount store in the middle of town?
Or maybe, on the far edge of town?
The leadership of the Pagosa Springs Town government has, for the past three years or so, been pursuing a Big Box discount store, apparently as a way to bolster Pagosa’s economy. The various discussions we’ve heard since the Walmart announcement in January suggest that a 93,000-square-foot concrete box built in the Aspen Village subdivision would create maybe 150 or so low-paying jobs while eliminating who-knows-how-many jobs in various existing Pagosa businesses. We’ve also heard that Walmart’s food section will provide healthy competition for our town’s two grocery stores — City Market and Old Town Market — and that Walmart will generate additional sales taxes to help fund our poor County and Town governments.
On Saturday morning, Cynda and I wanted to buy paper plates and organic chicken. My daughter Ursala and her family were coming over from Pagosa Springs to visit us in Salida, and we weren’t sure if we had enough plates in our little apartment. We also knew Ursala prefers organic chicken.
We headed for Walmart.
Salida’s Walmart was built several years ago at the far western edge of town. It has to be one of the ugliest Walmart’s you’ve ever seen, if you consider a featureless, metal-sided, brownish-yellow warehouse to qualify as “ugly”. The parking lot has no landscaping to speak of.
Inside the store, the aisles and the enormous blue-and-white signs hanging from the white, industrial ceiling look exactly like every other Walmart you’ve ever been in. As you enter, you are greeted by a smiling young man in a wheelchair — a reminder that Walmart cares enough to hire the handicapped, and also a reminder that you, yourself, are lucky enough to be walking on your own legs, regardless of how bad the economy might be.
We found the paper plates without too much trouble. But apparently the Salida store managers do not believe in carrying organic products — we couldn’t find any organic meat of any type, let alone organic chicken. Nor did they carry organic produce.
Cynda and I don’t always agree, but one thing we do agree on. We both start to experience a mild but unsettling sense of anxiety after being inside a Walmart store for more than five minutes. So we bought our paper plates and headed for the parking lot.
Luckily, the Salida Safeway had a selection of organic chicken.
Which bring me, in a roundabout way, to the conclusion of last Tuesday’s Town Planning Commission meeting. Town planner James Dickhoff had finished explaining that the Walmart development plan appeared to meet most of the requirements in the Town Land Use and Development Code (LUDC).
(How could Mr. Dickhoff say otherwise and still keep his job, we wonder?)
But Planning Commission member (and furniture maker) Cappy White was not yet satisfied. He addressed the ten or so Walmart representatives seated at the table opposite the Commission.
“You have to bear with me. You’re dealing with a furniture maker, and you guys are professionals, and I admire what you do. But this [approval process] is new to me. So it might take a while. So I’m amending my motion to include Resolution 2012-12. So in other words, the six or seven things I proposed would be in addition to the resolution.”
The “six or seven things” Mr. White had read out previously included at least a couple of items that are not included in the Town’s current LUDC. For one thing, Mr. White wanted Walmart to agree to hire a certain percentage of local subcontractors during the construction phase. He also wanted to see the Town and Walmart negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement, sometimes known as a “CBA”.
Many communities across America have required Big Box developers to sign a CBA before building their new stores within the community. One of the more recent CBA negotiations took place in Washington DC, where Walmart was proposing to construct a half-dozen new stores and needed a few variances from the city government. Those negotiations resulted in a “Community Partnership Initiative” signed in November 2011 by Walmart East Division Senior Vice President Henry Jordan. You can read the full agreement here.
If you read the agreement, you will notice it uses a lot of fine language and suggests many interesting intentions, but makes almost no actual promises that Walmart will do anything differently. The only clear, unambiguous promise I could discern in the four-page document (as published on the WalmartCommunity.com website) was this promise:
“Walmart will not sell guns or ammunition at our DC stores.”
I’m not sure how many Walmart stores sell guns and ammunition here in America, but Walmart has made an evident promise not to sell them in its Washington DC stores.
The other promises contained in the agreement seem to consist of either vague intentions to “encourage” certain goals (at the store manager’s ‘discretion’), or else simply restated pre-existing Walmart policies.
“Require the selected general contractor to incorporate and encourage them to meet the project developer’s CBE [Certified Business Enterprises] procurement goals of 35% for CBE entities and local DC based business enterprises.”
“All associates can become eligible for bonus incentives based on store performance.”
“At each new store, Walmart will attempt to provide space for a display of locally-sourced products and individual store managers will have discretion to identify and stock these local products.”
And then we have the kicker in the final sentence, which essentially makes all the previous promises moot:
“Any intentions or commitments contained in this document are subject and contingent upon business conditions that will continue to ensure a productive relationship with the city and its residents.”
But here in little Pagosa Springs, an isolated and struggling community whose Town government has been actively pursuing Walmart for the past three years, Planning Commission member Cappy White was proposing that Walmart would agree to sign a “Community Benefits Agreement” that made some actual, enforceable promises — even though the regulations that would have required a legal CBA were repealed by the Town voters in 2010?
If the carefully negotiated “Walmart Washington, DC Community Partnership Initiative” is any indication of the Walmart Corporation’s ability to make vague and unenforceable promises to a city of 618,000 people, then we might wonder why Mr. White is wasting his breath talking about “local hiring” and “community benefits.”
Meanwhile, the opponents of Walmart (and other concerned citizens) still have two key cards to play, it seems. One card is the apparent ownership of Alpha Drive by the Alpha Rockridge Metro District. And the other is the LUDC and its numerous and somewhat stringent building requirements — a few of which the Walmart development plan has not yet met.
Will mayor Ross Aragon need the help of his friends, Archuleta County commissioners Clifford Lucero and Steve Wadley, to successfully pull this rabbit out of the hat?
Read Part Nine...
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