Rural identity at root of Wal-Mart fight

July 09, 1995|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,Sun Staff Writer

LANCASTER, Pa. -- From a distance, the landscape is a romance of rolling hills dotted with silos and the sweet scent of honeysuckle.

In closer, drowsy little towns come into view with Amish horse-drawn buggies joggling down pastoral roads amid knee-high cornfields.

But at point-blank range, the picture is marred by a little sign on a storefront window: "MEGA STORES DESTROY SMALL TOWNS."

Wal-Mart is coming.

Here, as the nation's largest retailer plans to build four 24-hour-a-day supercenters and a discount club, a feud is playing out.

Galvanized, anti-Wal-Mart citizen militias called "Save Our Small Town Way of Life" and "Up Against the Wal" have sprung up with office space, attorneys and petition drives. And citizens have jammed town hall meetings with placards screaming: "Wal-Mart, The Bully of Corporate America" and "Town Killers."

The Arkansas-based chain has shot back with an advertising campaign and hot line to capture the voices of supporters.

And so unfolds a battle between progress and the preservation of a simple way of life, small-town America vs. a $67 billion company pursuing free enterprise -- a case of "Not-In-My-Backyard" in extreme.

The same feud is unfolding now in Baltimore as it has elsewhere in Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont -- almost everywhere Wal-Mart has sought to expand in recent years. Once the standard bearer of rural America, Wal-Mart is increasingly viewed as the archetype of corporate America, immovable in the pursuit of profit.

"We do not want to surrender our towns to greedy retailers," said local innkeeper Allan Smith, a 65-year-old transplant from Washington, D.C. "If they turn the farmland into a pastoral version of suburbia with some parks, what the hell is that? We don't want our beautiful countryside destroyed. We don't want to lose that tranquillity."

But Wal-Mart counters with an indisputable fact: The customers are already there, and so too are Kmart, Sears and other national chains.

"It's really nice to think it's pastoral and Amish people, but the reality is there's about a half-million people" in Lancaster County, said company spokeswoman Betsy Reithemeyer. "These areas can support this type of store."

Amid the sound and fury is the almost imperceptible voice of the "Plain People" -- the bearded men in black trousers, simple shirts and broad-brimmed hats and women in quiet dress, aprons and bonnets who are otherwise known as Amish and Mennonites -- who have lived off the land for nearly 300 years, apart from the modern world of electricity, automobiles and Wal-Marts.

On their farms and in their kitchens, they whisper about the changing landscape.

"When I look around, I see farmland, I see peace," said Rebecca Huyard, a 40-year-old Amish woman standing on her porch near a tobacco-rich field in Earl Township. "And I know when the city comes in, crime goes up, all sorts of lifestyles invade your territory, and I see Lancaster as one vast metropolis in 20 years."

And with Wal-Mart, opponents envision a nightmare of commercial sprawl and traffic.

Wal-Mart's objectives

But the giant discounter is striving to give its customers what they want. Wal-Mart is designing stores in the area not only with 24-hour service, beauty salons and vision centers, but with water troughs, hitching posts and corraled-off areas for the convenience of the Plain People's horse-drawn buggies.

The bottom line may be even more compelling for the public: The company intends to invest more than $48 million to build four 200,000-square-foot supercenters and a 112,000-square-foot bulk discount club, all clustered within 10 miles of each other. They mean millions in tax revenue and the creation of about 1,750 jobs with health, dental and profit-sharing benefits.

Still, some folks are not impressed. "Shopping-wise, we don't need another resin-patio-furniture store," said Carol S. Rettew, a 42-year-old opponent and lifelong Lancaster resident.

But other folks, looking at things practically, have warmed up to the idea. "It will bring people to town, so it will help me," said Jim Lippart, owner of The House of Unusuals, a local shop brimming with bric-a-brac. "I'm sure they're not going to carry antiques and nice junk like me."

Most merchants worried

But Mr. Lippart appears to be in the minority -- at least among small retailers who tremble at the specter of Wal-Mart rolling in, undercutting their prices and putting them out of business.

"You're going to have empty stores all over the place," said Walter C. Popejoy, owner of Benner's Pharmacy, an 83-year-old local institution with a soda fountain counter and five-cent cups of coffee. "If Wal-Mart comes in, I threaten that I'll raise the price of my coffee to whatever theirs is."

It isn't an idle threat, judging from the vehemence with which the Wal-Mart resistance has attacked the store proposals.

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