Up Against the Wal-Mart

February 25, 1993

"Think of the future," implore signs in Chestertown that have a big slash through the word "Wal-Mart."

Yet the battle raging in that Eastern Shore town has nothing to do with the future; it is all about clinging to the past. Some of the town's 4,000 inhabitants are as bitter about the prospect of a Wal-Mart entering their market as they were melancholy about seeing the old McCrory's burn to the ground last summer. The Wal-Mart fight has become unconscionably nasty; the mayor, a friend of one of the potential developers, reported receiving death threats and having his car tampered with.

The Kent County Planning Commission yielded to the political pressure last week in approving a questionable zoning change targeted to limit stores to 50,000-square-feet. Wal-Marts and similar "superstores" are generally twice that large. Now the legislation is before the county commissioners.

The opponents of a Wal-Mart in Chestertown are justified in their fears that the Arkansas-based discounter can have a profound effect on a market. Wal-Mart has been credited with more kills than the M1A1 tank in Desert Storm; it's been blamed for the undoing of everything from Main Street in Middle America to the Sears, Roebuck dynasty.

The store's opponents, however, are not justified in encouraging scare tactics or cookie-cutter zoning to keep out a single class of retailer. In fact, some fears about Wal-Mart are overblown, according to observers in Easton and Prince Frederick, where Wal-Mart entered Maryland in 1991.

Even Dr. Kenneth E. Stone, the Iowa State professor who goes town to town like an academic Paul Revere, advising merchants on ways to combat Wal-Mart, rejects the notion of discriminatory zoning.

If Wal-Mart is intent on serving Chestertown, it will simply move to Queen Anne's County, and Kent will lose tax revenues along with business.

Kent County would be wrong to erect a zoning wall against a business that doesn't present a public threat. The zoning change would simply limit consumer choice and codify complacency in the marketplace. Isolationism should not be the cornerstone of Kent's economic master plan.

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