June 09, 2010 News & Features » Cover Story


Rural Rollback 

After conquering Richmond's suburbs, Wal-Mart draws opposition on a new battleground. Is the retail giant worth the fight?


Elaine Hall escaped to Powhatan County about six years ago. She hated the traffic congestion and strip-mall mentality of Chesterfield County, with its stacked subdivisions and cookie-cutter McMansions. So she and her husband packed up and skipped across the county line with their two daughters into the quieter, more rural confines of Old Powhatan Estates off Page Road. Now she fears the forces of evil are following her: Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, plans to build a superstore about a mile from her home.

“Chesterfield is incredibly overcrowded, over-retailed and out of control,” says Hall, who spoke out against the Wal-Mart proposal during a Powhatan County Planning Commission meeting last week. “So many people have moved to Powhatan specifically from Chesterfield to escape.”

With more than 300,000 residents, Chesterfield ceded its rural status to the forces of suburbanization long ago, largely becoming the region's bedroom community as middle-class families fled the city en masse in the 1960s and 1970s. Powhatan, to the west, also has grown, but at a much slower pace. It remains a vast rural county of 273 square miles, 228 farms and a meager 28,000 people.



Elaine Hall, who moved to Powhatan from Chesterfield about six years ago, worries about the proximity of the proposed Wal-Mart to Dutoy Creek, which feeds a pond on her property. Photo by Scott Elmquist

Still, county leaders and residents concede the tide is turning. The growth in Chesterfield during the past few years has moved closer and closer, especially along Powhatan's main artery, Route 60, and near the recently completed Route 288. That 31-mile highway connects Interstate 95 in Chesterfield with Interstate 64 in Goochland County. Moreover, 288, which cut through Powhatan's eastern tip, created a loop of sorts around Richmond, linking the most heavily populated corridors in Chesterfield and Henrico counties, and making Powhatan more accessible to the entire region.

During the last decade, managing Powhatan's inevitable growth has been the chief concern for county leaders and residents alike. Few, however, expected to be confronted with the reality of a Wal-Mart so soon. The retail giant's foray into the county, about two miles from the Chesterfield line, promises to draw retail spending from Chesterfield and ignite an accelerated flurry of retail development.

“It's a retail corridor whether you like it or not: Powhatan is just the next logical extension,” says Larry Agnew, a commercial real estate broker for the Wilton Cos. “Wal-Mart will plop there and you'll have your Hair Cuttery, your pizza guy and five or six [retailers] that feed off of Wal-Mart. … It's amazing what they can do to a community like that.”

The impact is immediate. An economic-impact analysis submitted to the county, and paid for by Wal-Mart, projects the store will generate $50 million in annual sales, kicking back more than half a million in sales taxes to county coffers, another $90,000 in real estate taxes and $20,000 in business property taxes.



Seven years since Wal-Mart arrived in Ashland, the store has yet to destroy the town's small-business community and is praised by many for its contributions to local nonprofits. Photo by Scott Elmquist

 Wal-Mart's enormity will also lure more retail developments to the corridor, and bring 350 full- and part-time jobs to the county. While the retail business is notoriously fickle, Wal-Mart's ability to draw thousands of shoppers and generate millions of dollars in revenues is one of the only sure bets in the business world. Throughout the recession, for example, Wal-Mart continued to post sales gains across the country.

The company's success, and near-religious commitment to “everyday low prices,” is exactly what fuels critics. Wal-Mart, with 4,300 stores in the United States, has the size to dictate prices to its suppliers, forcing lower margins and lower wages for employees, and makes no qualms busting unions and forcing employees to accept low pay and minimalist health care. It's so adamantly committed to fighting employee unions that the company once closed one of its stores in Quebec when workers attempted to unionize. When meat cutters in Texas threatened to unionize in 2000, the company responded by shutting down all of the state's in-store butcheries.

In Powhatan the opposition to Wal-Mart formed almost immediately. At the Planning Commission meeting at the county high school June 1, more than 20 people spoke out against the proposal, conjuring all the typical evils that follow a Wal-Mart: nightmarish traffic, giant big-box retail centers, the loss of mom-and-pop businesses, even higher crime. Worse, critics say, Wal-Mart threatens the county's rural character and quality of life.



Debbie Markel, co-founder of the Wal-Mart opposition group Powhatan Grow Smart, says members of her organization plan to ask county officials to create an ordinance that would cap the square footage of retail stores. Photo by Scott Elmquist

Debbie Markel, co-founder of Powhatan Grow Smart, has lived in the county for 15 years and is the former owner of a small business, Apothecarian Herbals, on Route 60. While her business already was suffering from the recession, she says the Wal-Mart proposal hastened her decision not to renew her lease in December, even though her shop was nearly seven miles away. “Any Wal-Mart now sells quite a few of the items that I sold,” she says, “and they could undercut my prices by at least 40 percent.”

Markel has a laundry list of other complaints. She's worried about other small businesses, traffic, crime, trash, jobs going to nonresidents and the way she perceives how Wal-Mart operates.

“I haven't shopped at Wal-Mart in probably 10 or 12 years. I don't like the way they do business. I don't like their predatory practices. I don't like their employment practices. I don't like their low wages,” she says. “They are a little bit discriminatory. They've had quite a few lawsuits against them.”

Markel says the spirit of the county's draft comprehensive plan “will be meaningless” if the county's Board of Supervisors passes the Wal-Mart rezoning. At last week's meeting she presents a petition, with more than 700 signatures, opposing the proposal.

Small-business owners and Chesterfield expats lament what they perceive as Wal-Mart's multipronged threat. One woman reads aloud from a book damning big-box stores. Another presents crime statistics comparing incidents at Wal-Mart with Food Lion locations in Chesterfield — according to Powhatan Grow Smart's research, Food Lion compares favorably. Several people voice concerns about Wal-Mart's threat to Food Lion, which has two stores in the county.

Hall, who lives off Page Road, works for a locally owned Hallmark gift shop and says she isn't opposed to growth, just big-box growth. She's also concerned about what Wal-Mart will do to Food Lion, she says: “I guess despite the fact that it's a national chain, so to speak, it has the feeling of being a local business.”
But there's little quantifiable evidence that Wal-Mart runs off local businesses and undercuts a community. In fact, there's plenty of research to the contrary.



Charles and Cathy Waldrop, with Tom and David Willis, have run Cross Brothers Grocery in Ashland since the 1970s. Wal-Mart, which derives more than 50 percent of its revenues from grocery sales, didn't run them out of business as they originally feared. Photo by Scott Elmquist

“Things are definitely going to change, but on net they tend to change for the better,” says Art Carden, professor of economics and business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., who recently co-wrote a study on Wal-Mart's affect on surrounding communities. “The data suggests that there's a net increase in overall employment, and there's no change in small-business employment. It's true that some small businesses are probably going to close, but new small businesses will open in their stead.”

Politically, Wal-Mart is often painted as poster child of predatory retailing. But in the current economy, communities that once turned back the retail behemoth are changing course. The company is adjusting its approach, often catering store design to community wishes and subsidizing road development — a rarity in an economic environment in which localities are asked to cough up tax breaks and other incentives to lure businesses and jobs. Wal-Mart is crafting a friendlier, pro-consumer pitch that cash-strapped localities are finding difficult to turn away. 

When Wal-Mart proposed a store in Ashland nearly a decade ago, the opposition poured out so aggressively that it became the subject of a PBS documentary. Critics feared the store would drive out small businesses in the town and ruin Ashland's intensely local small-town appeal. Seven years after the store opened in 2003, however, many of the local businesses have changed their tune.

Cathy Waldrop, co-owner of Cross Brothers Grocery on Railroad Avenue, about a mile from Wal-Mart, says she worried about losing business, but found the impact wasn't that severe. A rarity in the grocery world, the tiny, family-run store has had to buckle up on prices but manages to maintain its niche, focusing on its butcher shop and delivery service.

“Our sales are pretty much the same,” she says, “but our margins are not like they used to be.” While Waldrop and her family vehemently opposed Wal-Mart, today they can even laugh about it. Her husband, Charles, says people often come into the store asking for directions: “They come in and say, ‘Where's Wal-Mart?'”



Powhatan resident Paul Lindsey shops mostly in Chesterfield County and says a new Wal-Mart would cut down on his driving time. Photo by Scott Elmquist

It's difficult to find the store, which is off Route 54 near the town's I-95 intersection. Obscuring the store off the road was part of the retailer's proffers to the county, in addition to spending $4 million in road improvements, to win its rezoning approval from the Town Council.

“The thing that is funny is there is no sign for Wal-Mart. If you don't know where the Wal-Mart is, you can't find it,” says Lauren Bell, a professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College and a town political watcher. In many ways, the store's relative obscurity runs parallel to the political tenor. The Town Council that approved the Wal-Mart completely turned over in the next election in 2002, with the community electing a slate of members who fought the rezoning case. Today most of the local businesses are still around and Wal-Mart is a “nonentity,” Bell says.

“For a while if you had to mention that you had to stop by Wal-Mart you did so in a whisper,” she says. “I think there are a handful of people that are still angry, [but] it's no longer a dirty word in town.”

Wal-Mart's approach in Ashland signaled a shift for the national retailer. Store managers get involved in local nonprofits, such as the local YMCA and a women's shelter, and the chain often donates money to local causes. It also works with area businesses, says Bill Wertz, a Wal-Mart spokesman. Wal-Mart started sending broken lawnmowers and other small-engine repairs to the local Ace Hardware store, for example, to help the owner offset losing business for hard goods.

That's not to say everyone's fallen in love with Wal-Mart. George Spagna, a physics professor at Randolph-Macon elected to Town Council after opposing the Wal-Mart rezoning case, says he never sets foot in the store. It's contributed to traffic congestion and lured business away from the town's existing strip shopping centers, he says, and he worries about paying for more road improvements.

But today, he says, his job is to support the Ashland Wal-Mart. “The worst thing to have in town other than a Wal-Mart is an empty Wal-Mart,” he says.



Wal-Mart is proposing a 155,000-square-foot supercenter on this 25-acre lot next to the Luck Stone quarry in Powhatan County, off Route 60. Wal-Mart says the new store will generate $652,000 in tax revenue a year for the county.  Photo by Scott Elmquist

As for the retailer's negative impact on quality of life, professor Carden, who also researched Wal-Mart's impact on the “social capital” of a community, found doomsday claims by critics are often grossly overstated. Because Wal-Mart's entry into a market brings a broad selection of discount merchandise and groceries, driving consumer prices down by an average of 3 percent, consumers' dollars go further, which has a ripple effect.

“If anything, Wal-Mart has a positive effect on quality of life,” Carden says. “There are reasons to not like Wal-Mart; that much is absolutely clear. Those are not reasons to force other people to not shop there.”

Perhaps most echoed in the debate in Powhatan is Wal-Mart's threat to the county's cherished rural feel, captured in references to Powhatan's draft comprehensive plan, which calls for “retention and attraction of clean, small and medium sized industrial, office and commercial enterprises.”

Wal-Mart is attempting to make its store in Powhatan more appealing by setting it behind the trees off Route 60, making it less visible. It also proposes a brick-and-stone facade, two rain gardens and a monument-style store sign.

Politically, Wal-Mart seems likely to get its approval. The Planning Commission voted in favor of the project, passing the rezoning request 4-1, sending the proposal to the Board of Supervisors for a final vote July 12. In a county with so little economic base, the potential tax revenues from the new Wal-Mart will be difficult to pass up.
“I've been to plenty of rural counties that have a Wal-Mart and they still feel rural,” says Karin Carmack, chairwoman of the Planning Commission, who voted for the rezoning application. “Wal-Mart doesn't put businesses out of business — consumers put businesses out of business.”

Where the Board of Supervisors stands is unclear. Member Joe Walton, who represents the district where Wal-Mart plans to build, says he has yet to decide whether to support the project. He waited to review Wal-Mart's application in detail until after the Planning Commission vote and says he's working on a list of concerns he plans to distribute to Wal-Mart and the public, such as the county's need for a ladder fire truck. Right now, Walton says, “we've got to wait for Chesterfield to loan us one.”

As for the impact on jobs and the county's overall rural character, there's the potential to add some diversity, says Georgeanne Artz, assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Missouri.

Artz, who's studied Wal-Mart's affect on rural communities in places such as Mississippi, Maine and Iowa, says Wal-Mart often tends to bring much-needed jobs and, even with limited health insurance, typically offers better benefits than what local business operators and small farms can afford.

Especially in a depressed economy, Artz says, rural communities sometimes overlook the benefits: “The question to ask is, ‘What are my alternatives?'”

For Paul Lindsey, 77, it's shopping in Chesterfield. Every Wednesday he and his wife, Jackie, set out in their Chrysler 300 sedan from their house in Powhatan for evening line-dancing lessons at Visions Dance Club in the Koger Holiday Inn near Chesterfield Towne Center. They leave early in the afternoon and make between 10 and 15 successive stops at stores such as Target, Dollar Tree, Walgreen's, Sam's Club, Southern States and Martin's Food Market before dinner and dancing.

The Lindseys clip coupons and check sales every Sunday after church to better target their Wednesday stops based on which stores have what they need at the lowest prices. During these trips, Paul makes note of gas prices all the way into Chesterfield, filling up only where fuel is the cheapest. On a recent afternoon, Sam's Club in Midlothian had the cheapest regular fuel at $2.42 a gallon, so the Lindseys didn't have to refuel on the way home from line-dancing — although he still needed to make one more stop at a Kroger, for some things that needed to be refrigerated.
Paul supports the Wal-Mart proposal, holding out hope that Wal-Mart will inject some variety into county retail. “I believe in a free enterprise,” he says. “I believe they should have just as much an opportunity to build here as anybody else.” S



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