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Council must solicit key answers in tackling 'supercenter' issue

The Medford City Council may have taken the lid off a can of worms when it agreed to consider measures to block a new Wal-Mart store. While we think the effort may be doomed, we also hope the council members will not move too quickly to put that lid back on.

The issue presents an opportunity for the city's leaders ' and its citizens ' to look to the future and determine if what they see is what they want for Medford.

The council agreed last week to set an emergency meeting for noon Monday to consider limiting the size of so-called big box stores. Medford is no stranger to the big boxes, with Costco, Lowe's, Fred Meyer and the Rogue Valley Mall among the biggest of a dozen or so large retail buildings in town. But Wal-Mart would double the definition of big by building a 200,000-square-foot store.

One of the problems with the proposal is that Wal-Mart already has a Medford store, which would close when the new store opens, leaving the possibility of the city being stuck with a big box minus the store. Talent knows that scenario all too well: Wal-Mart earlier announced it would close its Talent store once a supercenter is opened in Central Point.

Wal-Mart is huge and not just in the size of its stores. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the company, which is the nation's biggest employer and the world's largest retailer, opens a new store every two days. It has more people in uniform than the U.S. Army. Last year, it reported about &

36;7 billion in profits.

— It also has a huge list of detractors. They accuse the retailer of abusing its employees with low wages, unaffordable health care insurance and little or no retirement benefits. Economies suffer as well, its opponents say, through the loss of jobs at higher-paying businesses and the loss of American jobs through the importing of inexpensive foreign goods. Communities are left to deal with traffic problems and disjointed growth plans.

Those issues have resulted in battles all over the United States, as communities try to keep Wal-Mart out. That statement alone says volumes: In the midst of a long economic recession, people are trying to stop a new employer from coming to town.

But few of those efforts are successful and we doubt that a last-minute rush by the Medford council would have much success. That sort of effort was made in Central Point, but Wal-Mart's representatives simply walked in the door with their application hours before the council was to meet.

Perhaps there are ways to stop Wal-Mart, if that's the goal. Perhaps the council could declare a moratorium on accepting applications for large stores while it debates the issue.

But what it should not do is rush through an anti-big box ordinance. There may be unforeseen consequences ' would it affect Bear Creek Corp. plans for its site less than a mile away? And there are some benefits of the sale of county land for the store site. More than &

36;2 million from the sale will go toward building a new community baseball stadium at a planned sports park; urban renewal will gain taxes on the estimated &

36;30 million value of the store; and county taxpayers will see a reduction in the cost of a new juvenile center as a portion of the sale will go to buy down the amount of bonding needed.

But what is the price of livability? If Wal-Mart builds a 200,000-square-foot store, will its competitors follow suit? Is this an economic boon or does it spell bust for existing retailers? Will the store's location mean efforts to alleviate traffic congestion at the south interchange will be for naught?

Those are among the questions the council members should ask and answer. If the answers are not what they want to hear, they should try to stop Wal-Mart. Even if they are not successful in doing that, they will be better prepared for the next big box proposal that comes along.