Remember the Alamo, and Wal-Mart, too


July 05, 1998|By MIKE BURNS

RECALL THOSE famous battle cries of the past: "Remember the Alamo!" or "Geronimo!" or "To the Bastille!"

Add to the list a new one: "Wal-Mart!" As in the world's largest retailer chain, with about 2,400 stores in the United States alone. One's coming to a location near you, sooner or later.

Perhaps it is the company's gigantic size that stirs so much public fear and opposition. Books have been written about the variety of community challenges the retailer has faced in locating new stores. The arguments range from archaeological and historical to environmental to scenic beauty.

Certainly, smaller merchants are threatened by its promise of lower prices, its substantial ability to buy goods more cheaply, its corporate ability to subsidize new stores to get them going fast.

Established large retail players often are fearful, too. The Wal-Mart juggernaut seems unstoppable. The troubles of large non-specialty merchandisers seem to confirm that fear.

Do not/will not shop

Several people I know are insistent that they do not/will not shop in a Wal-Mart. Too big, too hard to find what they're looking for, too few knowledgeable sales personnel. Also, the long checkout lines, someone added. That's the devastating rebuttal to the previous complaints: people, lots of them, do shop at Wal-Mart. The naysayers seem to be in the distinct minority once the store is in business.

Wal-Mart's success lies in the simple fact that people prefer to shop there, for price or other reasons. It's not because this chain creates an instant local monopoly, or because of unscrupulous campaigns against other retailers.

The chain's proven success record attracts other eager retailers to the area. Rather than killing other business and creating a retail wasteland around the store, a new Wal-Mart seems to encourage the blossoming of new stores in the area. Some of them even may be partial competitors in the merchandise they carry. Indeed, these other stores and services typically find their own success in the shadow of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sells some food, but you still need to visit the grocery to fill most of your shopping list.

With two stores in Carroll County, Wal-Mart is reportedly seeking a third site in Mount Airy, at an existing local shopping center. Nothing is official yet. The Mount Airy Shopping Center owner is seeking to subdivide the land, in preparation for a big new (unnamed) retailer. But Wal-Mart admits it wants to come. You don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

Meantime, an opposition group has formed. The battle cry is heard again. Main Street merchants are in panic, and so are their neighbors. "Destruction of a community" is a catchword of those circulating petitions against the coming of the mighty chain.

Wal-Mart has lost some battles to build new stores, often because the zoning was improper or other regulations were too strict. But the retailer is usually assured that it has the right property and right zoning before committing.

"We don't invest $10 million to build a new store unless we know it's going to be successful," says spokesman Keith Morris, repeating the company motto.

By company calculation, a Wal-Mart would be located within a 20-minute drive from virtually anywhere in Carroll County. The three stores would not feed on each other's customer base, but expand the potential range of customers, into neighboring Frederick and Howard counties.

The road factor

Mount Airy opponents place much of their hope on the transportation factor, citing the need for road improvements and widening in order to accommodate the added traffic. Overburdened roads and traffic gridlock are too great a penalty to pay for another discount store, they argue.

The town planning commission says the shopping center's traffic improvement plans are inadequate. Better access and improvements are needed for local and state approvals. It's not a weak, desperate argument, either, especially in Carroll County, where roads are ever more crowded and where every major commercial project is hit with the same arguments. State highways in this county are woefully outdated for a burgeoning population.

In Eldersburg, plans for a new locally owned entertainment-retail center face the same type of objections. (Wal-Mart is already in that community and reportedly doing well.)

One reason that Wal-Mart is a lightning rod for local protest is that it aims to put large stores in smaller towns. Residents may feel overwhelmed and helpless, even if the communities have zoned the land for business use. They worry about the loss of a town's appearance and character, even though those features are changing rapidly without Wal-Mart. They are concerned about ripple effects on commerce and housing.

The retailer, of course, doesn't rely on trade from just the town (and its petitioners), but from the region. And there the opposition is virtually unheard -- only the pent-up demand for more shopping opportunity.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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