Debate over big box stores simmers

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(Host) For a number of years in the 1990s, Wal-Mart stores symbolized Vermont’s debate about its future.

Eventually, the big retailer opened stores in Bennington, Rutland, Berlin and Williston, and attention shifted.

But the debate was never fully resolved and, now, with new proposals, it’s simmering again.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd has more.

(Sneyd) Wal-Mart is hardly the only retailer that prefers to operate in large, warehouse-style buildings.

But Wal-Mart has always been the lightning rod, largely because of its size and its tenacity in pushing its plans.

Consider St. Albans. Wal-Mart has tried to build there for 15 years. Developer Jeff Davis says small corners of Vermont need what Wal-Mart has to offer.

(Davis) "Vermont is a unique place but our shoppers are similar to those in the rest of the parts of the country. I think the demand for these kinds of goods and these kinds of discount prices exists here. And therefore I think the continuing demand for this kind of store is here.”

(Sneyd) That’s why Davis fought for a permit to build in St. Albans, and is trying to turn aside an appeal. It’s why he’s wants to build in Derby, even though there’s also stiff opposition to that store. He’s applied for permits in Derby.

(Davis) "I often go out and stand at the front door of Wal-Mart in Williston and I watch an awful lot of average working Vermonters saving a few bucks. They’re out there by the tens of thousands a week. I don’t think anybody can deny that. So there’s something out there that the consumers are wanting and desiring. I feel good about that. Because I think a $20 or $30 or $40 savings on a cartful of goods is something a lot of Vermonters can use.”

(Sneyd) Critics ask: At what cost?

To them, big box stores are a threat. They say the stores dramatically change the once-rural landscape. And they say shoppers are drawn away from historic downtowns.

Noelle Mackay, executive director of Smart Growth Vermont, explains.

(Mackay) "For us it’s really about having downtowns that are compact and mixed use and people that live there can shop.  The thing with strip developments or large box stores is you’ve got to get in your car generally to get there. And the only thing you can do there is get one item or several items and move on to the next big box store and you need a car to do all of that.”

(Sneyd) Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont has worked for years to persuade big retailers, especially Wal-Mart, to build in downtowns.

He hasn’t given up, he says, because he believes Vermont’s future is at stake.

(Bruhn) "What we have is this mystique and this sense of community. And we have downtowns and village centers that are largely intact. We haven’t become completely homogenized as much of the rest of the United States has. … We’re blessed with a pretty strong homegrown economy, locally owned business that really contribute to the identity of our communities.”

(Sneyd) Developer Jeff Davis says downtowns can thrive in the same market as big retailers. He says Burlington has and so has Montpelier, which has a Wal-Mart in next-door Berlin.

Critics don’t argue his point. They just question what the tipping point will be. St. Albans and Newport are smaller. They might be harder pressed if a superstore is built on their outskirts.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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