Ashland's battle over Wal-Mart is the subject for a PBS documentary. 

Store Wars

A caveat is in order before I begin: Ashland, population 7,200, holds a special place in my heart.

My first real job in broadcasting was in Ashland, that small town up the road from Richmond that calls itself "the center of the universe." I worked at a little 1,000-watt daytime-only station that set up shop in a prefab house and then didn't quite know what to do with itself. For a brief while it aimed itself at "housewives." This was in the early '60s, when one could still find lots of women who self-identified that way. Then, mercifully, and probably because all of the on-air staff was between the ages of 18 and 21, the station switched to a rock format.

It wasn't long before I fell in love with Ashland and its people as much as with broadcasting. The town was — and still is — turn-of-the-century picturesque, with the main East Coast railroad line running smack through its center. Its Victorian houses recalled a more leisurely period, an era when people had time to stop and talk to each other across backyard fences and on the street. Its shopkeepers would still run a tab with no more justification than your word. And you didn't have to live or work there long at all before everybody knew your name.

Times change, and so do towns. Now Wal-Mart is coming to Ashland.

There are those who think that's a bad idea: "The future of our town is at stake." And there are those who think it's a great idea: "The only people who don't want Wal-Mart are the rich people — and they've got theirs."

In "Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town," PBS-TV examines both sides of what became a terrible schism in Ashland in 1999. Cameras were there for a year as the conflict between neighbors unfolded. They were there as the Wal-Mart issue was debated on sidewalks along the railroad tracks, in cafes, in churches, in coffee shops and over sausage biscuits in the Hardee's up by I-95.

The resulting documentary, despite its barely detectable anti-growth bias, is a cogent look at what happens when the idyllic version of the American Dream runs smack up against 21st-century big-box-store economics. It paints an Ashland so lovely it could break your heart, then focuses on the debate over the right of a community to determine its future, while, at the same time, dispassionately observing the reality of growth and marketplace economics. Narrated by Ashland town historian Rosanne Shalf, "Store Wars" is a cliffhanger to the end. It tracks the debate from planning commission to town council and back again — until a lame-duck town government gives Wal-Mart — which now opens a new store somewhere every other business day — the OK to build.

The debate is emblematic of our times, and, moreover, emblematic of all time. But that doesn't make it any easier to know which is the right answer to the question of growth versus preservation. Still, the subject is well worth intelligent discussion, and PBS provides the forum in "Store Wars."

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart plans to be opening a new store somewhere every single business day by 2004.

And the good people of Ashland are left to wonder if the center of their universe will switch from Center and England streets to a vast Wal-Mart parking

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