(Host) A two-day symposium on the impact of box stores on small towns ended on Friday in South Royalton. Much of the discussion focused on how communities can control large retail development. There was common ground, but there was also sharp disagreement on the impact of box stores.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports.
(Zind) Her name is Claudia and she’s a waitress at Denny’s in Rutland. She was no where near the Vermont Law School on Friday, but Claudia was a central character in the debate over big box stores. Attorney Jay Kenlan related a conversation he’d had with Claudia about shopping at Wal-Mart in Rutland. Kenlan asked her
(Kenlan) “Doesn’t shopping at Wal-Mart have a bad effect on your sense of community and your quality of life?”
(Claudia) “My what? My quality of life and my community are at home with my family. Wal-Mart really doesn’t have anything to do with that other than to make life easier by saving me some money so I can get other things.”
(Zind) Kenlan said those who oppose box stores like Wal-Mart aren’t speaking for people like Claudia and they’re overstating the negative impact the stores have on communities.
On the other side of the debate was Al Norman, founder of an organization called Sprawl Busters.
(Norman) “I think that building an argument around Claudia from Rutland is a little bit specious because the issue is not about how to make shoppers happy.”
(Zind) Norman says the issue is preserving communities. He said Wal-Mart and stores like it deprive towns of more jobs than they create by driving downtown merchants out of business.
Kenlan countered by pointing to Burlington’s Church Street as evidence that downtowns can thrive in the shadow of box stores.
(Kenlan) “The sky is not falling. Certainly some businesses will come and some businesses will go, but doesn’t that happen, anyway?”
(Zind) While Kenlan says Wal-Mart provides jobs to communities, Norman said the retailer has a 45 percent annual job turnover annually – a sign the jobs don’t offer good pay and benefits.
(Norman) “That means that every two years they have a completely new work force.”
(Zind) And Norman argued that Wal-Mart is sending many manufacturing jobs overseas where products are made more cheaply.
(Norman) “As we Wal-Mart-ize our economy, more and more of us are going to be looking at bagger and clerk jobs instead of the better paying jobs in our communities.”
(Zind) But Kenlan brought up an example of a Vermont business that’s been strengthened by Wal-Mart. He introduced Roberta MacDonald of Cabot Cooperative Creamery. Cabot cheese is sold in Wal-Marts around the country.
(MacDonald) “I’m blown away by Wal-Mart. I’m happy that people of any income can buy from Cabot and I know that it’s meant a lot to our farmers to sell in places we never could go.”
(Zind) Al Norman and Jay Kenlan did agree on one thing: that communities must be more pro-active in planning and zoning for large retail development.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in South Royalton.