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Many cities resist Wal-Mart

Local opponents of plans for massive stores say the traffic and environment are the bigger problems here

A battle brewing over two proposed Wal-Mart Supercenters in Jackson County is one of many being waged across the nation against the world's largest retailer.

Hundreds of cities are taking a stand against Wal-Mart's plans to expand into their communities, their opposition fueled partially by perceptions that the company has predatory pricing practices, an anti-union bias and a disdain for local communities.

Plans are in the works for new 207,000-square-foot Supercenters in Medford and Central Point that would replace existing stores of about half that size on Highway 62 and Talent.

The fight has just begun, said Shareen Fiol, who is part of a newly formed group opposed to oversized big box stores, citing impacts to traffic and the environment and other problems.

— While the local group has complained about specific Wal-Mart practices, members say their focus will be on issues that specifically target the impacts these massive stores will have on the community.

They join others nationwide who are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with mega-stores that are the size of four football fields in the midst of a community.

Wal-Mart in particular has come under fire by some residents who feel the corporate giant runs roughshod over community needs.

With Web sites titled Walmartsucks and Stop the Wall, opponents object to what they say are the company's practices of paying poor wages and destroying local jobs.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amy Hill, who noted the new stores will add 500 jobs locally, flatly denies accusations that Wal-Mart is anti-community or that it practices predatory pricing.

It is a pretty strong accusation and would be looked at by the federal government if it were true, she said.

Some communities have battled Wal-Mart and won but complain the corporation plays rough.

Friends of Humboldt County helped a citizen campaign in 1999 to block the building of a Wal-Mart on waterfront property in Eureka, Calif.

One of the things that turned the community against the project, other than its location, was the number of underhanded, nasty things they did, said Marilyn Oberg, secretary for the organization.

Wal-Mart conducted soil sample tests secretly without informing the city, called local residents during the middle of the night to get their opinions on the store and sent out mailers that used the local elections office's return address, she said.

They hired outsiders to come in to collect signatures for a ballot measure, said Oberg. They did their own damaging propaganda that showed they aren't good neighbors.

Although there was much local opposition to Wal-Mart and its business practices in general, Oberg said the campaign waged against the retailer focused on using the property in question for other more productive uses.

Eureka is not anti-big box, she said, and welcomed a newly built Target store.

We have seen firsthand the Target people and the Wal-Mart people, she said. It's night and day. Wal-Mart was just brutal, imperious, argumentative in their approach.

In Hillsboro, community members have waged a campaign to block a proposal to build a 210,155-square-foot Supercenter, citing traffic, proximity to a residential area and other concerns.

The planning commission ruled against the store in May, but Wal-Mart has appealed the decision to the City Council, which is expected to make a decision on Aug. 6.

Barbara Simon, spokeswoman for the city of Hillsboro, said local citizens waged a well-organized effort against the big box store.

We had more than 500 people show up at a planning commission meeting, she said. The neighbors opposed did a good job of organizing.

Other communities have battled Wal-Mart and lost.

The nation's largest company spent &

36;140,000 to defeat a referendum that would have banned a Supercenter in Calexico, a small California border town.

Other communities, such as Inglewood, Calif., and Nevada's Clark County, repealed Supercenter bans after Wal-Mart qualified local ballot initiatives that would overturn the ordinances.

The Medford City Council this week considered a ban on stores of more than 150,000 square feet, but postponed any decision until more study was conducted.

In Martinez, Calif., a Bay area town of 37,000, Wal-Mart already has a 120,000-square-foot store but was hoping to expand it.

The Martinez City Council passed a big-box ordinance that blocks Supercenters, but Wal-Mart has fought back, spending &

36;100,000 to gather enough signatures for a ballot measure aimed at overturning the decision.

Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder, who was the sole dissenting vote on the local big-box ordinance, said much of the animosity directed toward Wal-Mart in his community has been union driven, specifically from the United Food and Commercial Workers.

In many areas, he said, controversy over a planned store often boils down to specific denunciations of Wal-Mart, such as low wages, poor benefits or pricing that drives out the competition.

I have often heard people say, 'This isn't about Wal-Mart,' he said. And then they go ahead and blast the hell out of Wal-Mart.

Contrary to local scuttlebutt, he said the city's only big box store hasn't killed the downtown area.

We don't have a viable downtown, he said. The mom-and-pops were killed by the Safeways of this world long ago.

Wal-Mart's Hill said the company has met with opposition over its Supercenters, but added that with 250 to 300 new stores planned each year, most of the country obviously wants the stores.

She said that criticism of Wal-Mart often comes from union groups. Far more people (in Hillsboro) have sent testimony supporting this project than opposing it, she said.

Hill said that Wal-Mart isn't perfect and does make mistakes, particularly when it deals with 100 million customers every week and has — million employees.

There are bound to be times when things are not handled appropriately, she said. When we're aware of situations, we correct them immediately.

Hill said company policy prevents her from discussing salary ranges at individual stores, but she said wages are competitive with other big retailers such as Target or Costco in the Medford area.

The company's decision to create Supercenters in Medford and Central Point has been spurred by the rapid growth in Southern Oregon, she said.

As Medford has grown we need to grow with it, she said. We need to offer them our best format, best prices.

The increasing number of customers that use these stores and the need to expand is one testament to the popularity of Wal-Mart in this area, she said.

Opponents of Wal-Mart's plans say it's time to fight

Two local citizens groups opposed to plans for Wal-Mart Supercenters in Medford and Central Point say the fight's just begun.

This is not a done deal. There are no permits issued. Neither planning department has approved it, said Shareen Fiol, a spokeswoman.

Many people in the community assume the 207,000-square-foot stores have been approved and there is nothing that can be done to stop them, said Fiol.

There is room for public hearing and public testimony, she said. The time to fight the issue is at hand.

Fiol is working primarily with a Medford group opposed to the store planned for Miles Field, located on Highway 99 at the southern end of the city.

Another group, Central Point First, is concentrating its efforts on opposing the Central Point Supercenter, which would be located on East Pine Street near Interstate 5.

At a planning meeting Tuesday night, both groups met to discuss opposition strategy, such as finding an attorney, getting a land-use expert and raising funds.

Fiol said traffic is one issue that is common to both projects, but other issues probably will come to light as the groups continue their studies.

One potential strategy, she said, is researching the original Miles Field deed, which may have specified the land can only be used for a park. County officials say their research has determined this isn't the case.

The Central Point group, which organized first, already has identified some of the issues it will use in its opposition.

We're not against Wal-Mart, said Becca Croft, a spokeswoman for Central Point First. You can be a supporter or consumer of Wal-Mart and not agree with what they're doing.

Croft said her group will challenge the corporation's plans based on facts and the law.

We're against that size of a building going on that piece of land, she said. It was zoned for a community shopping center.

Her group, which has collected about 350 names of local residents opposed to the Supercenter, said the project goes against the city's strategic plan, which aims to create a small-town atmosphere that has unique character.

The project also is being built against Bear Creek, which will create environmental problems, she said.

In addition, traffic is a major concern to local residents, who already face congestion on East Pine Street.

We will have the inconvenience of 15,000 vehicle trips a day going by your house, she said.

Central Point First can be contacted at centralpointfirst@hotmail.com. The other group can be reached at rich@oregonaction.org or by calling 772-4029.

The Wal-Mart store on Highway 62 in Medford had a steady stream of customers Wednesday morning. Customers enjoy Wal-Mart?s low prices, but cities across the nation oppose the corporation?s plans for building mega stores. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell