Stoughton, WI. City Council Hands Wal-Mart a 110,000 s.f. limit on stores.
It was not a good evening for Wal-Mart.
The giant retailer did its best to stop the vote, but on January 27th. the City Council in Stoughton, Wisconsin voted 9 to 3 to put a size cap of 110,000 square feet on retail stores. Wal-Mart first proposed a 184,000 s.f. store, but had been lobbying the Council hard to raise the cap to at least 155,000 s.f. But the Council in the end sided with the anti-sprawl group Uff-Da (Enough!) Wal-Mart, that wanted the smaller cap on size. One Alderman said at least 80% of the e-mails he received supported a 110,000-square-foot or smaller facility. Another Alderman said the 110,000-square-foot cap is a balance between character and convenience. "This is a far as I can go in terms of sacrificing the character of the city for the convenience of a large retailer," he said. Wal-Mart's corporate response to immediately suggest that they would instead build a store in the nearby town of Oregon, Wisconsin. "There's already been some discussion about Oregon, but that's very preliminary," Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio said. In a classic effort to leverage one town off another, Bisio said that size cap in Stoughton "moves the Oregon discussions up in priority. We want to stay in Stoughton, that's our first preference. But, we also have to look at how we can best serve our customers there. It would be premature to suggest we have found a site in Oregon, but given the political climate in Stoughton, we felt we needed to look at an alternative." If a Supercenter opens in Oregon, "we will shutter the current facility in Stoughton," Bisio added. Wal-Mart complained that a store nearly three times the size of a football field would not be big enough to adequately serve their customers. Wal-Mart already has a 40,000 s.f. store in Stoughton. "It just does not make sense for us to commit millions of dollars for a development that would from the get-go underserve our customers," Bisio said. The Wisconsin State Journal quoted Stoughton Alderman Patrick Schneider as saying, "I think by settling at 110,000 square feet we are creating a balance between character and convenience. The town is not going to die if we don't bring in Wal-Mart." But Wal-Mart has been working through supportive Aldermen to try and put the question of a Wal-Mart project before the voters in a referendum. A group called the Committee to Promote Stoughton Growth asked the city to raise the proposed size cap or hold a referendum. The group has threatened to sue if that doesn't happen, but the legal grounds for a lawsuit seem vague, since the City Council has every right to limit building dimensions. But the City Council also voted at the same sitting to reject putting the matter to a referendum. One Alderman summed up the feeling of anti-big box activists: "A nice community, a great place to live, which I think Stoughton is, doesn't happen because of a big box or not. It's the people." Wal-Mart was reported to be "disheartened" by the City Council vote. Wal-Mart had tried to pawn off a "village" Wal-Mart drawing on the city that would have been four times the size of a football field. Their rendering of the store showed a facade made to look like a series of small storefronts, but Uff-Da members were not fooled by the facade. Behind the front was a huge, windowless box. A representative of the group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin Land Use Institute, predicted that Wal-Mart will eventually submit a smaller store in Stoughton. "There is no evidence that they will leave," said the representative. "The only reason they ever vacate a store is if they build another store in a corn field on the edge of town. They make millions now with a 40,000-square-foot store; they'll just make millions more with a store twice that size. They're not leaving." An official in Oregon said he did not want his town to be played off of Stoughton. "We don't want to be used as leverage in those discussions. However, if there is a need for Wal-Mart to look for another site, and I mean if the Stoughton proposal falls through, then we would listen to what Wal-Mart has to offer."
What you can do: Apparently officials in Oregon,Wisconsin are not concerned about community character, or in being used to "threaten" a Wal-Mart departure. The retailer often uses a second town off the first to weaken the first town's resistance. Note that Wal-Mart is not threatening to challenge the size limit in court. Such caps on building size are a legal, and effective way to keep big stores out. For more background on this story, search this database by "Stoughton". For local contacts, email email@example.com. Stoughton becomes yet another city to balance character with convenience.