Thursday, June 4, 2009

WAL-MART: Hate to Say 'I Told You So', but....

My post on September 4, 2007, Big Box Theory: Attacking Mall-Wart, has proven to be anticipatory of a future reality.
And, that reality is now, if it is not already too late.
I hope it's not.

There are lots of things that people love to hate; bigness, low wages & benefits, lack of choice, high prices, brutal competition, cheap imports, large parking lots, strong central control, crowds of boorish shoppers, and the like.
Also, the opposites of many of the above.

Point is, you can't please everybody anywhere near all the time.
But having a relatively inexpensive place to shop for essentials, and maybe a few extras, is not inherently a bad thing.
In fact, it can be a very good thing for many, particularly in hard times, like these.

WAL-MART is now a $400 Billion company, every year - if not the largest, close to it.
And, it's culture and practices have changed somewhat, in response to both criticism and market pressure.
There are early indications that WAL-MART can't be everything to everybody, and must choose its strengths more carefully.
This has even begun to attract other business to locate close by to fill the lacks, while taking advantage of of the large volume of customers that WAL-MART regularly draws.
Big chains, like Target, for example.
If that trend were to continue we might literally begin to have malls of Big Boxes.
Municipalities might even be willing to plan for that to happen.
What a concept!
Better mass transit, land use and common public amenities.
Less sprawl, wandering traffic and congestion.

But, time will tell, as it always does.

So, back to the present, so we can revisit the past.
With that in mind, the Herald editorial of Saturday, May. 30, 2009 is reprinted below:
Mayor offers end to store-size mistake

It's time for the city of Bellingham to rescind its law limiting the size of stores.
Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike has proposed a plan to ease the city's ban on allowing stores larger than 90,000 square feet, as long as the buildings are developed in step with environmentally friendly building standards and only in the part of town where large retailing already exists. The City Council will take up the mayor's idea in June.

The City Council has limited the size of stores to 90,000 square feet and limited expansion of stores that are already larger than that. The limit was put into place after Wal-Mart expressed interest in expanding its Meridian Street store to a "Super Wal-Mart." The larger stores including full grocery offerings.

City officials, apparently upset about Wal-Mart's practices as an international conglomerate, decided to take a stand, even if their stand flew in the face of all of the hard work they had done to control and direct growth in our community.

The current location of Wal-Mart is the best location for Wal-Mart. If the company is going to put a "Super Wal-Mart" in our community it should be built where all of our county's major retailing, and the traffic that goes with it, is already located. Forcing Wal-Mart and other stories outside of Bellingham flies in the face of growth management efforts in our community.

Meanwhile the city's ordinance had unintended consequences when Costco also wanted to expand slightly. We are not aware that City Council members have anything against Issaquah-based Costco's retailing practices. But once the law was in place limiting Wal-Mart, it would have looked bad if the city made an exception for Costco. Such an exception would have exposed the store-size limit for what it is, an unfair restraint of trade aimed solely at a particular business.

If any city official tries to deny their intention was to limit Wal-Mart, ask them why they did not object to the creation of the Bakerview Fred Meyer, which is larger than 90,000 square feet, or a strip mall along Bakerview Road that is much bigger than 90,000 square feet when considered as a whole.

We are hopeful that enough time has passed for the council to consider the mayor's proposed changes to the store-size rules without council members feeling as if they have abandoned their convictions. What the mayor is proposing is what should have always been in place.

Big box stores should be limited by zoning to certain parts of the city. Certainly no one wants a giant store built in a historic neighborhood. The current areas along Meridian Street and Bakerview Road are the proper places for such development.
And requiring any new building to follow environmentally sensitive rules is common sense, whether for an expansion or an entire new store.

We hope the council takes the mayor's proposal seriously and moves quickly to modify the store-size rules. So far the council has been lucky. Wal-Mart, Costco and others have not started building new, bigger stores in some other location - such as in Ferndale or on the Lummi Indian Reservation.

But eventually , if Bellingham's leaders don't change their policy , they will force out these businesses and create the worst possible scenario - a big loss to the city's tax revenues and unsightly sprawl in parts of the county where it should not be.


Bravo, to the Herald and its editorial board for revisiting this issue, especially, in the cool light of projected City budget deficits!
And, do not doubt that the clear and serious threat to City revenue streams is the real reason for any reconsideration, despite all the other nice sounding rationale.
Once the financial dots are connected, most issues can be seen with more clarity.
And, that is without corrective lenses to combat political myopia, astigmatism, sensitivity to light or night blindness.
But, there is no simple answer for those who prefer to keep their eyes closed, or receptive only to what they want to see.
That's why 'wake-up' calls are sometimes necessary.