Pittsfield, MA. Developer Returns Third Time For Wal-Mart Superstore
The Berkshire County community of Pittsfield in northwestern, Massachusetts (pop 43,303) has been targeted by the Wal-Mart corporation for a huge superstore to replace an existing Wal-Mart discount store just minutes away. Not surprisingly, the hopscotch nature of closing stores and moving them nearby has many local residents upset.
A developer from eastern Massachusetts has dropped a 190,000 s.f. proposal into the heart of the William Stanley Business Park, a 52 acre former industrial site owned by General Electric, which the city has worked on for years to turn it into "remediated brownfield property.” A Life Sciences Center is being pursued in the Park, with the overall site controlled by the quasi-public Pittsfield Economic Development Administration (PEDA).
This parcel is restricted by a Consent Decree between the city and the U.S. Environmental Protective Agency (EPA), a document that apparently does not allow retail grocery stores on the site. Another stumbling block is the city’s own Master Plan, which calls for “strengthening downtown as a pedestrian friendly, vibrant mixed-use urban place.” The land use plan also promotes “walkable neighborhood centers.” Placing a big box store nearly the size of 4 football fields, surrounded by an asphalt parking lot possibly three times large than the building—is a suburban footprint, car-dependent use that is incompatible and totally inharmonious with a downtown urban center.
Wal-Mart’s business model of $9 and $10 an hour jobs also clashes with Pittsfield’s economic development goal of pursuing “stable, high-paying jobs and long-term career paths.” The fact is, there is little demonstrable market need for another grocery store in Pittsfield—and at least 40% of the floor space at a Wal-Mart superstore is food.
The city already has a Super Stop & Shop, Price Chopper, Big Y, and Price Rite. The saturation of grocery stores suggests that a major new entrant will simply cannibalize the trade area, and dislocate existing jobs rather than add new value. Pittsfield’s population has dropped more than 3% just in the last five years.
The developer, Waterstone Retail Development, has said the Wal-Mart piece of its project will generate an additional 100 jobs—but most of the job impact will be the 200 transferred workers from its existing discount store a short drive away, which will shut down. Once you net out the jobs lost at other competitors already in Pittsfield, the job impact is either a wash, or a loss.
The actual site #9 is a 16.5 acre parcel called the “teens.” The PEDA board met behind closed doors with the developer and voted to sign a letter of intent to give Waterstone two months to work up a lease/purchase agreement. The head of PEDA told The Berkshire Eagle the project was a "heck of a deal,” and urged residents to see the "global picture" not a "narrow development" perspective—a possible reference to Wal-Mart’s controversial business model and billionaire owners.
The developer has created a website and Facebook page to push the project. One of Waterstone’s main pitches is that it will spend $12 million just to “rehabilitate the parcel to a workable condition before any vertical construction can begin.” What has not been made clear his how much PEDA will offer Wal-Mart in site tax credits, tax incentive financing, and other “generous incentives” that PEDA has at the ready.
With $14 billion in net profits last year, it is hard to justify public subsidies for the Walton family. But the EPA consent decree with GE required it to remediate toxicity on the entire Stanley Park site before giving the site to PEDA. So the “heck of a deal” may really be for the polluter, General Electric.
Waterstone has foisted Wal-Mart on Pittsfield twice before for this same parcel—but the retailer would not allow the developer to use its name publicly. According to The Eagle, Wal-Mart dropped out the first time when the recession forced a cut back in growth plans, and Waterstone failed the second bid to get PEDA to support them.
This time around, the developer has hired a Boston-based PR firm, the Public Strategies Group, to help sell the plan to the locals. PSG boasts: “For over twenty years we have helped companies gain approval on controversial development projects totaling billions of dollars in investment.”
The Wal-Mart plan for Stanley Park certainly meets the definition of "controversial," as well as any definition of "redundant" and "wasteful."
What you can do: It didn’t take long for Pittsfield’s new Mayor Linda M. Tyer, who has been on the job for six months, to set the political tone for the deal. "I believe strongly in the right to a due process concerning proposed business development,” she told The Eagle.
This is roughly where Holyoke, MA. Mayor Alex Morse began when Wal-Mart came to his city in 2013. In July of 2013, Morse held a press conference on the Wal-Mart project. “Wal-Mart's business model relies on depressing the costs of labor -- providing lower wages and fewer benefits than its competitors, and employing 40% of its workers on part-time basis only. The result of this model is to drive better-paying jobs out of communities…Therefore, in terms of jobs, the net benefit of a Wal-Mart is virtually nonexistent…We cannot support projects that trade jobs for jobs, nor can we allow the allure of short-term hiring to compromise our ability to create new and better jobs down the road. At a time when our economy needs higher wages and dignified jobs -- a fact that has been recognized across the state in protests and even walkouts by Wal-Mart's own employees -- we must do better than to welcome a company that would block this effort."
"After all the strides we have already made," the Mayor of Holyoke said, "we cannot afford to take a step backward. It is for these reasons that I stand today in firm opposition to this project.” Wal-Mart withdrew its plans shortly after.
Readers are urged to contact Mayor Linda Tyer at 413-699-9321 and leave this message:
“Mayor Tyer, I hope you will keep an open mind about the proposed Wal-Mart project, which is inappropriate suburban sprawl in an urban area. We don’t have a market need for this project, and two-thirds of the jobs promised are already here—at the Hubbard Avenue site-- which Wal-Mart will abandon.
"We don’t need more $10 an hour jobs—this is not the kind of project our Master Plan envisions. Ask the Mayor of Holyoke why he took a forceful stand to oppose Wal-Mart’s voodoo economics. For Pittsfield, this is a step backward. It’s not how big we grow in Pittsfield, is how we grow big.”