Wellsville, NY. Wal-Mart's No News Is Good News.
Citizens in the small town of Wellsville, New York have been fighting Wal-Mart for roughly three and a half years. The good news this week was that Wal-Mart still has not started to build -- and it's not clear when construction will start.
Six months ago, on July 27, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had reduced the size of its store by 24% -- but it was still not ready to build.
Wellsville promotes itself as a lovely small town in the heart of the Allegany Hills. This town, and Wellsville Village is nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, with the Genesee River flowing through it. But the town is also looking for big malls, and says it has several properties in "Empire Zones," which allow it to give tax subsidies to developers. If a Wal-Mart ever happens in this town, it will be with public welfare subsidies.
On March 3, 2008, Sprawl-Busters noted that Wal-Mart held one of its dog and pony shows in Wellsville, but for many local residents, there were no ponies. It is common practice now for Wal-Mart to hold such public relations "open houses," where people mill around a series of posterboard displays about the proposed Wal-Mart, get to ask the engineers some informal questions, and most importantly, from Wal-Mart's perspective, sign a sheet supporting the plan. The retailer then uses that list to drum up support for public hearings on the plan later.
A citizen's group in Wellsville formed quickly to oppose construction of the new store. At the public event, the town's Supervisor told the newspaper he was concerned by what he saw. The Supervisor noted that traffic congestion would become a major consideration. But right from the beginning, the Supervisor telegraphed his support for the plan. "Traffic is always a concern," he was quoted as saying, "but if the DOT (state Department of Transportation) signs off on their plan there shouldn't be a problem."
This is the standard passive attitude adopted by many local officials. The Supervisor said that he wanted an additional traffic signal to ease congestion and that he was concerned that with the existing road and the additional stretch of road which must be built to tie the new store into the road system. "I think that with proper synchronization of the lights, there won't be a problem," the Supervisor said. "Oh, maybe some car will get caught at the light." Then the Daily Reporter quoted him as saying, "there is always room for compromise."
The citizen's group brought in a local environmental attorney to let the Board know that they have the ultimate say on this project. "You have the power, they don't, it is your town," said attorney Gary Abraham. "You tell them what you want in the State Environmental Quality Review through the scoping document. You make the final decision." Abraham told the town to file an Environmental Impact Statement to determine the scoping process of the SEQR.
Attorney Abraham said that an EIS can include such things as any added cost to social services or Medicare, the character of the community and the impact on the local economy. "It's just common sense that a project like this would dictate that kind of study," Abraham added. "It is the first form that gives the chance to identify any significant impacts." The attorney noted that an independent study should be done, not one by the developer, and that the cost of such study could be charged off to the developer.
Under New York law, this project was required to conduct an analysis of reasonable alternatives to the site which do less environmental harm.
But the key to SEQR is how local officials implement it, and most local officials are "in the tank" with big developers, and only stumble through their paces to try to avoid litigation by citizen's groups.
The closest Wal-Mart store to Wellsville is 21 miles away in Hornell. It's just a discount store, so Wal-Mart will either try to expand that store in Hornell, or shut it down. The closest supercenter is 36 miles away in Bradford, Pennsylvania.
The retail trade area in Wellsville does not warrant its own supercenter. The town had a 2006 population of 7,460, a drop from 8,116 in 1990. The village of Wellsville had a 2006 population of only 4,898 people -- a drop from 1990's base of 5,241 people. The town and village populations are losing people, and their census combined at 12,358 people does not warrant a supercenter project.
On January 17, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart, to make its store more palatable locally, had reduced the store's footprint from 148,000 s.f. to about 112,000 s.f..
Wal-Mart organized an "astro-roots" group called Wellsville Wants Wal-Mart, to counter efforts being organized by the Wellsville Citizens for Responsible Development. WCRD said it wanted to know where the project stands now in the SEQRA process, because the water and sewer issues are just a small part of the larger impacts from the project.
Last July the Wellsville Wal-Mart was back in the news, almost three years since its first appearance. When the local newspaper asked Town Supervisor Dar Fanton why there was no activity yet at the Wal-Mart site, the Supervisor said: "Do I have a crystal ball? I haven't heard anything since I last talked to them." The Supervisor said that Wal-Mart lawyers "still have work to do."
Issues over the State Environmental Quality Review have not been finished. Town officials are in the dark about the retailer's future plans, but Fanton said he was not aware of any change in Wal-Mart's plan to build in Wellsville.
The head of the local Wellsville Country Club -- which had agreed to swap some land with Wal-Mart to make the deal happen -- told the Daily Reporter that his group has not had a conversation with Wal-Mart for three years. "We asked them if there was still the potential of a project coming to Wellsville," the country club spokesman said. "At that time, they said they were hoping to break ground by January 2009." That means the project is now three years behind schedule.
Six months after our last report, the Wellsville Daily newspaper began wondering again what had become of Wal-Mart. Town Supervisor Dar Fanton still couldn't fill in the blanks -- but he said a month ago he did talk to a project consultant. Fanton claims that the lawyers are holding up the project, while they work on a project agreement. "People are obviously anxious to have it open," Fanton said. But many people in Wellsville are delighted nothing has moved forward.
One Town Councilor told the newspaper that he remembers meeting with Wal-Mart five years ago -- and that this long timeline was not that unusual for the giant retailer. "Would I like it to be faster? Yes. Do I think it's anything to be concerned about? I don't think so," the councilor said. "I understand how long and complicated these things are," the Town Supervisor added. "I was told the one (Wal-Mart) up in Victor, New York took 10 years."
For now, the Wellsville Town Board has little to tell the public, except to be patient. "There's not a lot to report at this time, but I'd keep my ears open the next couple of months," one local official told the Wellsville Daily.
What you can do: This week Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke told the Associated Press, 'I think we have improved and changed who we are in many ways. I think we are more desirable to come to a community. ... I think we've done a better job of communicating about the jobs that we create and the opportunity that we create in the area of jobs. I think we've done a better job of communicating about the jobs that we create and the opportunity that we create in the area of jobs."
Wal-Mart's latest plan to shrink their store to get into Tucson is a victory for citizen activists who fought to get the size cap ordinance passed in the first place. But Wal-Mart has built and abandoned some stores after less than ten years -- so what they build today in Tucson could be dark within a decade, and the fact remains that this new project will be very dissimilar to Macy's. The world's largest retail discounter will bring increased traffic and crime that will leave city planner's flat-footed unless they plan now for the true impact of this store.
Readers are urged to email Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup at: firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message: 'Dear Mayor Walkup, Wal-Mart and Macy's are not the same store. The footprint might total the same, but are you prepared for the increase in crime and traffic that this addition will bring to El Con?
In terms of design, it would be better to urge Wal-Mart to build a three-story building with 33,000 s.f. per floor, and to incorporate many of the historic building elements found in the El Encanto neighborhood and other historic neighborhoods abutting this mall.
What Tucson has done is create a suburban big box power center in the middle of historic city neighborhoods. Retail areas should have thematic connectivity to the homes that surround them.
You might also insist on operating hours that require this store to close by 11 pm, and not open before 8 am, with no overnight deliveries. Wal-Mart should also be required to sign a demolition bond, so that if they abandon this store and leave it empty for 12 consecutive months, they have to tear it down at their expense.
I certainly hope you will not repeat the voodoo economics from Wal-Mart that somehow this store will create 250 new jobs. In fact, this project adds no value to the mid-town economy, since most of its sales will come from existing merchants -- including some already located at El Con. You will gain some 'dark stores' from this oversaturation of big box retail.
This kind of suburban, big box power center is so out of character with the surrounding land uses, that one has to wonder when will Tucson grasp that the quality of life and character of a neighborhood is more important than access to cheap Chinese products?
Wal-Mart knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. This seems to be the reining philosophy at the Tucson City Council as well. The El Encanto neighborhood is right to begin a legal challenge against the El Con Wal-Mart.
If you don't protect the value of their homes, it is left for them to do.
Tucson should not spend one penny of legal expense in this case. Let Wal-Mart foot the entire legal bill for defending a permit that will bring them millions of dollars in new sales."