The Big Box Debate

Is Wal-Mart bad for Tarpon Springs?

The pickup truck turns with haste off busy U.S. 19 onto the rolling, reddish sands of the large vacant lot on the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs. The motorcycle in the truckbed and the knobby tracks criss- crossing the property testify to how popular this roughly 60 acres of Pinellas County is with dirt bikers.But not for long. The parcel finds itself at the center of a controversy over commercial development, the growth of so-called "big box" stores of overwhelming square footage and the future of this historic Greek community.

Wal-Mart wants to build a supercenter here. And a few locals aren't happy.

Flogging Wal-Mart has become a national pastime. The world's largest and most successful retailer is the target of labor union hatred because it has strongly resisted letting its workers join up. Wal-Mart stands accused of ruining small-town America by sucking the retail dollars out of mom-and-pop businesses. The latest claim (courtesy of PBS's Frontline) is that Wal-Mart is ruining our national economy by dictating such austere terms to manufacturers that some are going out of business or moving jobs overseas.

The company is the defendant in a gender-discrimination class-action lawsuit. In 2003, Wal-Mart was accused of knowingly hiring or subcontracting with illegal immigrants as floor cleaners after a raid in its stores resulted in 250 arrests.

For those who are now salivating at the chance to read a scathing indictment of Wal-Mart's style of retailing, I'll tell you right now that you are going to be disappointed.

Wal-Mart's not the villain here.

Joan Skaaland moved five years ago to the new Sail Harbor neighborhood, where the 50 lots are spaced widely apart on the Anclote River and wood storks still walk across your lawn. About a year ago, she started seeing newspaper stories about the vacant parcel nearby being readied for development. She said she called City Hall and was told that nothing was in the works. ("They said you can't believe everything you read in the papers," she recalled.)Her skepticism grew into anger when the city pulled a slick procedural move to ensure that no county or state review of development at the site would occur. Once that was done, the announcement was made: Wal-Mart would build a 205,000-square-foot supercenter with a grocery store, auto shop and garden center with 919 parking spaces.

Already within driving distance are three other smaller Wal-Marts. "How many Wal-Marts do you need?" asked Skaaland. "I haven't heard anybody say it will be pretty, it will be good for the river, that the extra traffic is needed."

Some downtown merchants likewise hit the roof. John Tarapani, a real estate agent and antiques store owner, said the coming of the Wal-Mart supercenter "would be the greatest travesty ever to happen in Tarpon Springs."

Tarapani and Skaaland helped form Friends of the Anclote. Tarapani paid to hire Tampa land-use lawyer John Grandoff to provide some legal muscle. Two city commission hopefuls threw their hats into the ring for the March election using the fight against Wal-Mart as a key plank in their platforms.

The Tarpon Springs City Commission votes on the development Jan. 18.

After doing its best to conceal the coming of Wal-Mart from the public, the city of Tarpon Springs turned to weak-kneed adversarial tactics.Wal-Mart, the city declared, would not be allowed to sell natural sponges, so as not to compete with local merchants. (Wal-Mart doesn't even sell natural sponges.) The city later dropped that requirement after allegations of conflict of interest were leveled against sponge-merchant Mayor Beverly Billiris. The city also asked Wal-Mart not to sell liquor at its new store, a move aimed at helping the area's best wine shop, B-21.

Wal-Mart's spokesman, Glen Wilkins, is conciliatory when asked about the city's demands. "We decided that it was worth giving up liquor sales to be part of the community and to work with the community," Wilkins said.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has tendered thousands of local customer signatures on petitions urging that the new store be built. The company has also offered to give the city 28.5 acres along the river as a nature park and trail. It has agreed to build a kayak launch and contribute $60,000 toward construction of four boardwalks off the nature trail.

Wal-Mart is just doing what any good business should: fighting to make a profit and providing goods and services to a community. It's called capitalism.

Skaaland and her group raise valid concerns about the environment, and it would have been nice if the city of Tarpon Springs had been more forthright with its residential constituents. But don't blame Wal-Mart for that. For their part, city leaders say they can't comment on the pending vote until it is taken because zoning decisions are considered quasi-judicial. "I'm legally bound," Mayor Billiris said Sunday. "On a project as big as this, I'm not breaking any of the rules."

As for the need for another "big-box" in our community, Wilkins said, "Wal-Mart doesn't go into an area that isn't growing. Tarpon Springs is growing. All of North Pinellas County is growing. We saw an opportunity to go there and serve the community with low prices."

Wal-Mart may have a lot to answer for, at least regarding its labor practices. But it's worth noting that the company has been building its supercenters since 1988. It has not closed a single store because of lack of sales.

The Political Whore rarely shops at Wal-Mart because the one closest to his house frankly stinks. And he's not real happy with the Target down the street, either, because of the whole Salvation Army Santa thing, but that's another column. You can reach Political Whore at (813) 832-6427 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Web-Mart

For more information on both sides of the Wal-Mart story nationally, here are some excellent websites:

Sprawl Busters

www.sprawl-busters.com/

The battles nationally to stop Wal-Mart, as chronicled by leading Wal-Mart-hater Al Norman.

Wal-Mart Watch

www.walmartwatch.com/info/page.cfm?subsection_id=124

Sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) "to give voice to the concerns of Wal-Mart associates and to the concerns of the communities where Wal-Mart operates."

The Big Box parody site

www.big-box.com/

A clever and devastating parody of the retail big box phenomenon.

Wal-Mart

www.walmartstores.com/

The official Wal-Mart corporate line.

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