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2008-01-24
Neptune Beach, FL. Wal-Mart Withdrawal Leaves City At Square One

Now you see it, now you don't. Wal-Mart has disappeared from another small community, leaving behind nearly two years of rancor and an empty lot. On September 11, 2006, the City Council in Neptune Beach, Florida voted down Wal-Mart's application to build a 117,000 s.f. supercenter on Atlantic Boulevard. Wal-Mart's attorneys immediately requested the city agree to enter into negotiations with a special master, who is a mediator, to try and avoid a lawsuit. The city had spent $93,000 fighting Wal-Mart's project. About $74,000 had been spent on the city's attorney, but another $18,000 had been spent on consultants and a traffic engineer. Fast forward to the end of February, 2007. The City Council voted 4-1 to accept a recommended settlement from the Special Magistrate to allow Wal-Mart to build a Supercenter on Atlantic Boulevard after all. One Councilwoman told the Florida Times Union she found it "despicable" that Wal-Mart hurts the character of small communities, but said she couldn't risk taking the city through a lengthy and potentially costly lawsuit if the city rejected the proposed settlement. "We have already spent $100,000 in [mediation] ... I love this community too much to place it in jeopardy of a $1 million or $2 million or $3 million lengthy lawsuit or litigation," she said. "I wish I could say, 'No, I'm not going to support this.' But for my community, I don't feel like I have any other choice but to support this." The settlement from the Special Magistrate contained 16 conditions, including a provision that Wal-Mart pay the city $300,000 for its legal costs. The Magistrate also threw in a stop light for good measure, and told Wal-Mart to "change the aesthetics" of its store, by using more "earth tones" on its outside walls. The only voice against this "settlement" was Councilman John Weldon, who noted, "This settlement disregards the substantial negative impact that this development will have on both traffic circulation and general quality of life in Neptune Beach. The monetary contributions called for in this settlement set a particularly bad precedent for future development applications." Wal-Mart's lawyer told the newspaper, "Obviously, we're pleased with the outcome and Wal-Mart is excited about the opportunity to serve its customers at the Beaches." The Wal-Mart was going to be located in mall with an empty Big Lots store that would be torn down to make way for the superstore. Many residents in Neptune Beach were appalled by the way their City Council caved-in to financial pressures. One anti-Wal-Mart activist told Sprawl-Busters, "In mediation sessions, Wal-Mart was approved by the mediator with a token set of give-aways to Neptune Beach, which in no way come close to remedying the damage this store will do to our town. The out-of-town owner bought the shopping center in 2001; he had long-time on-going businesses filling the entire shopping center except for one store; the owner never put one cent into updating the shopping center or bettering our community, but invested only the minimal that he was forced to do in maintaining the buildings and grounds; and that same owner chose to evict all the existing businesses in favor of a single, big money Wal-Mart lease, using the power of Wal-Mart mega-dollars to support his efforts. Our little, primarily residential town will not be able to support this behemoth without raising property taxes, meaning all of us will bear the cost of servicing Wal-Mart... At great cost, our city hired a land use consultant and land use attorney to protect us against just such inappropriate development, and our own city attorney also reviewed the laws, and all said they were sufficient to protect us." When the city voted to accept the project, they told the media they had no other choice and that they were backed into a legal corner. It was done to avoid a very costly lawsuit. "We spent $100,000 going up against a giant, and thankfully we got something out of it -- certainly, a better-looking building. We'll probably have the best looking Wal-Mart in Duval County, " one City Councilor told News 4. But the story had one last twist yet to come. This week, after almost a year and a half of tooth-and-claw battles, Neptune Beach residents learned they won't have a Wal-Mart supercenter after all. The storyline the retailer gave Neptune Beach officials was strikingly familiar to similar pullouts happening all across the nation. "Through our strategic analysis we have made the decision that we will not move forward with this particular Supercenter in Neptune Beach," a Wal-Mart representative told city officials. The Mayor of Neptune Beach, like a good politician, had taken every position possible on the project. Mayor Dick Brown began against the project, according to News 4, but when he learned they were pulling out, he flip-flopped. "I mellowed a little on this," the Mayor admitted. "I agreed with them that maybe it wasn't a good fit, but then (Wal-Mart) worked so hard to make it a good plan for us. I began to think maybe this would be a good thing because we do have an empty shopping center. Now, the bad news is we're back to square one."

What you can do: Many residents of Neptune Beach are just delighted to be back at square one. Several days after the word started to spread, the public relations firmed hired by Wal-Mart to represent the Neptune Beach project said that the "decision is related to Wal-Mart's announcement that came out last June, which relates to it being more strategically focused and prioritizing development of Supercenters." Last June, in the shadow of Wal-Mart's announcement to shareholders that it was slicing off many superstores, the retailer's spokesperson in Neptune Beach put on his best Mr. Smiley face. "The Neptune Beach store project will remain on schedule," she said. "We expect it to still begin construction in the end of 2007 or the beginning of 2008." But plans changed. Even the city councilor who said the city would have the "best looking" Wal-Mart in the county, heaved a sigh of relief. "I don't think it's a surprise, since some of us keep hearing the rumors with all the stores closing up and others just hanging in there," she told the Times-Union. "For Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach and all those hundreds of people that wrote letters and sent e-mails, and I don't think there's been an issue any bigger than this, I'm happy for them." Readers are urged to email Mayor Dick Brown at dbrown@neptune-beach.com with the following message: "Your Honor, don't mellow too much on Wal-Mart. You were right to be concerned about a project of this scale in Neptune Beach. Now that Wal-Mart has left you at the altar, perhaps its time for your city to pass a zoning ordinance limiting the size of stores to 75,000 square feet. Use this as an opportunity to end the rancor and the lawsuits. Restrict superstores by making them fit into Neptune Beach. You and the City Council can make this happen -- and your citizen's won't sue you for it."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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