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2009-01-01
Skowhegan, ME. Wal-Mart Expansion Will Test New Informed Growth Law

Wal-Mart discount store #2143 is located on Fairgrounds Market Place in Skowhegan, Maine. There's a Wal-Mart superstore 14 miles away in Waterville -- which for Maine is like driving down the block. Skowhegan describes itself as a community "brimming with American History yet is host to modern businesses." They don't list Wal-Mart as one of those businesses, preferring to focus on real job generators, like New Balance Shoes, the regional hospital, and a paper company. Skowhegan also boasts that in 2005 Main Street Skowhegan was designated as one of eight Main Street Maine communities -- the purpose of which is "to improve and maintain the downtown area as the heart of Skowhegan." The town has set downtown revitalization as one of its land use goals to achieve long-term sustainability for its core commercial area. Yet a proposal from Wal-Mart to expand its existing discount into a supercenter, by adding another 30,000 s.f., is slated to become the first test of the state's Informed Growth Act, which was designed to force cities and towns to conduct independent reviews of large scale projects. On May 5, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that state lawmakers in Maine were studying a new law regarding future growth. Legislation was pending that would require developers of stores greater than 75,000 s.f. to pay $40,000 up front for an independent study on the economic and environmental effects of their project on the local area. "I've heard from Maine Street in Bath, from Topsham and Brunswick - people not even in my district," Sen. Paula Benoit, R-Sagadahoc County, who owns a small business, told the Maine State House News. "They're begging me to take action." Rep. Chris Barstow, D-Gorham, the main sponsor of the bill, said his proposal would help the community to understand the implications of their land use decisions. The economic impact study would be conducted by independent reviewers, and reviewed by the state's Planning Office. The studies would look at net impacts on property taxes, municipal budgets, local retail jobs and wages. These studies could be used by the local planning boards or permit granting authorities to determine if the project had an "undue adverse impact" on the local economy, which would be the criteria for denying a project. The bill would require all cities and towns in Maine to conduct such studies -- but the developers would foot the bill. The legislation was opposed by real estate brokers, developers and business groups, including the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Maine State Chamber and Maine Merchants Association. Under the law as adopted, there is a two part process for "findings of fact" that cities and towns must perform. In the first part, the community must determine if the project will have a negative effect on any of 11 economic factors listed in the law. The community must find that the proposed development will have a negative effect on at least two of the 11 factors in order to show an undue adverse impact. The second part requires communities to determine if the project's overall negative effects on the economy and the environment outweigh its overall positive effects. There can be no undue adverse impact conclusion unless the city or town also finds that there will be an overall negative impact on the economy and the environment. A conclusion of "undue adverse impact" requires two or more negative findings as to the economic factors and a negative impact finding overall. Otherwise, the conclusion must be that there is no undue adverse impact. Not surprisingly, Wal-Mart is the first big box store to test the new law. Wal-Mart told the newspaper that it has already paid the $40,000 to the state's planning office, and filed an application for the impact study with the town. The town will now hire an independent consultant to perform the work, and the state will use Wal-Mart's money to hire the firm. Wal-Mart told WCSH TV that it hopes to start the store expansion sometime in 2009.

What you can do: There is no reason for Wal-Mart to test this new law, because there is no compelling reason for Wal-Mart to expand into a supercenter in Skowhegan. The population in the town of Skowhegan is less than 8,800 people -- and its gone nowhere over the past 20 years. Absent an expanding household base, new entrants into the Skowhegan trade area are merely attempting to steal market share from existing players. A Wal-Mart supercenter in Skowhegan will draw most of its jobs from the existing Wal-Mart discount store, and the addition of a full-line grocery store will capture sales from the existing Hannaford's stores in Skowhegan, and other smaller grocers. There is no real added value for the Skowhegan economy, and no net additions to the job base. Wal-Mart is just a form of retail musical chairs. The Skowhegan supercenter will also take some sales away from the Waterville Wal-Mart supercenter. Readers are urged to email Joy Mase, Chairman of the Skowhegan Selectmen, at jmase@beeline-online.com with the following message: "Dear Chairwoman Mase, A Wal-Mart supercenter in Skowhegan will bring no added value to the local economy -- and most of its impact will be to existing merchants -- not to market growth. Look at your demographics for the reason why. Your town has not grown in population since at least 1990. Twenty years of stagnant population growth is not overcome by allowing national chain stores to expand. Having Wal-Mart enter as a discount store was the first mistake -- don't make a bigger mistake. This expansion is not likely to pass the Informed Growth Act test. Because this store will not add jobs or revenues to the community, it will be hard not to conclude that Wal-Mart's additional square footage will have an undue adverse impact on the town. Skowhegan needs more companies like New Balance that make products -- not just those that import products from China. I urge you to reject the Wal-Mart superstore, as many other Maine communities have done. This project is incompatible with your aggressive downtown revitalization goals, and your Main Street Maine program. Large national chains on the edge of town pump money out of the local economy. An independent impact study should show that, and an independent Board of Selectmen should send this project back to Arkansas. If you want your downtown to be the heart of your community, you can't keep creating more and more retail capacity outside of the downtown."










 
 
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