Fight over 'an island in sea of Wal-Marts' 6-year battle in Kent pits preservation vs. economic growth

November 26, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN -- The nation's longest-running Wal-Mart war is being waged in rural Kent County, where the giant retailer's 6-year-old plans for a store starkly define a debate between preservation and economic development in Maryland's least-populated county.

The bitter case has gone on so long that one of Wal-Mart's lawyers says he divides its history into two chapters -- before his heart attack and after. The attorney for the Coalition to Preserve Chestertown muses that the dispute "dates back to Clinton's first election."

Meanwhile, two miles north of Colonial-era mansions lining the Chester River near the upscale shops of the downtown business district, the site known as the old Scheeler airfield remains vacant despite persistent efforts by the $70 billion Arkansas corporation.

What began in November 1992 with an emotional flurry of signatures scrawled on petitions, hand-lettered lawn signs and packed public hearings has evolved into a test of wills being played out in state and local courts.

Both sides agree courts will ultimately determine the future of commercial development in the town of 4,000. Legal arguments in part of the case resume next month.

"It's one of those things that has been going on so long, you reach a point where you don't often think of it -- it just becomes part of you," says Chestertown Mayor Margo G. Bailey. "It has been so nasty, so unpleasant, that by now people don't want to talk about it, to dig it up again."

Hard feelings have polarized the county from the beginning. Bailey, now serving her second term, campaigned against Wal-Mart. Her four-term predecessor, Elmer Horsey, stepped aside amid charges that he accepted a $500,000 loan from a Maryland developer who was one of Wal-Mart's original partners in the project.

In 1995, Wal-Mart bought the entire site for $1.4 million and has proceeded in plans for the 100,000-square-foot store without development partners.

Kenneth and Brenda Horrocks, two leaders of the preservation coalition, continue to draw criticism from Wal-Mart supporters, who question their motivation. The two have frequently been accused of being stand-ins for business owners who couldn't compete if the proposed discount retail store is built.

"There were numerous times when people stood up at public hearings and accused us of being paid," says Brenda Horrocks. "We have never taken a penny from anybody. For many people, this has become a personal vendetta. I can tell you that if I were getting paid, I'd have quit a long time ago. To me, it's a matter of what's right and what's true."

Coalition members have refused to disclose who their financial backers are because, they say, downtown merchants and other business owners fear reprisals. More than 250 people have contributed to the coalition's legal bills, which have easily topped $100,000 in six years.

"Right from the beginning, we had business people who supported us but wouldn't sign the petition or put them in their store," Horrocks says.

Opponents say the real issue is the fear that grips communities as Wal-Mart adds to its more than 3,400 stores around the world -- fears that small retailers will be unable to compete, leaving downtown districts and older shopping centers boarded and empty.

County officials, who have supported Wal-Mart from the start, fret that Kent is losing an estimated $10 million to $20 million a year from county shoppers who trek to Elkton, Easton or Dover, Del. -- nearby towns that already have Wal-Mart stores. Tax revenue is also an issue in a county with 18,000 residents, they say.

"What we have is a lot of people who made big bucks someplace else, moved here and don't want another blade of grass to change," says County Commissioner Clarence A. Hawkins. "There were rumors that 50 downtown businesses would close. I never saw any basis for that."

Ballot question defeated

Hawkins and others say the defeat in November of a nonbinding ballot question in which voters were asked whether Kent should limit the size of retail stores is evidence that the coalition represents the minority view.

But leaders of the group say the ballot question, which never mentioned Wal-Mart, was poorly worded and confusing -- and it lost by only 400 votes.

They say the sheer size of the proposed Wal-Mart points up the negative possibilities. The proposed store would nearly rival each of Chestertown's two strip shopping centers, the 173,000-square-foot Kent Plaza and the 130,000-square-foot Washington Square.

Opponents say the promise of as many as 200 new jobs rings hollow, too, because many small retailers would be forced out of business, potentially costing as many jobs as Wal-Mart would create.

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