Wal-Mart in St. Albans

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine May Kunin reflects on Wal-Mart’s controversial plans to locate a store in St. Albans.

(Kunin) I was waiting for friends at the bar of a downtown St. Albans restaurant recently, when the discussion turned to Wal-Mart. One patron was eagerly in favor of the store locating in St. Albans. He was tired of traveling to Williston or even to Canada to make affordable purchases. The owner of the restaurant had a different opinion. She wasn’t against Wal-Mart; she just thought it was too big. Another person suggested it be located downtown.

What’s different about the Wal-Mart debate today – not only in St. Albans, but also in seven other Vermont locations – is that it is not only a question of being for or against Wal-Mart. It’s possible to welcome Wal-Mart to Vermont, but on our terms.

When Vermont first enacted its restrictions on billboards more than 30 years ago, critics said that such a move would cost us jobs and nobody would find us. Today, that law is an emblem of good sense, it’s a magnet for tourism, and it has put Vermont on the map as a state which has a mind of its own. Limiting the scale of Wal-Marts in Vermont fits into that tradition.

Yes, there are those who feel adamantly on both sides and will not yield to compromise. Last May the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the entire state of Vermont on its endangered list because of plans for Wal-Marts to punctuate the state and decimate lively downtowns. Even the jobs argument has been weakened when information comes to light about low salaries, high turnover, minimal health benefits, and sex discrimination.

Those in favor of the mega-stores make their strongest argument when they talk about low prices. Vermonters deserve to have access to bargains just like everybody else.

Often compromise makes nobody happy. But in this case, it could work. Over 1,000 Vermonters signed an open letter recently to H. Lee Scott, the CEO of Wal-Mart, published in his hometown newspaper. The message was straightforward.

We are not opposed to you coming to Vermont. But do it our way. Scale down the size and make it possible for those bargain stores to fit into our landscape and allow us to maintain what makes this state different – a sense of place, a connection with history, a respect for the land.

Vermont need not slam the door on Wal-Mart but neither does it have to leave it wide open. This is one case where dialogue, negotiation and compromise can be the best solution.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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