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A new chapter for Medford

After years of court battles and protests, a Walmart Supercenter opened for business Wednesday in south Medford. Critics of the world's largest retailer remain opposed to the project, but it's now a done deal and, on balance, it will bring benefits to the area.

The $14.5 million store is the first in the Medford area to feature a full grocery department. It employs 375 people.

Opponents of the Supercenter project tried to force the city to require a new traffic impact study, and to block the project until a study was done. City officials maintained that a traffic study completed when the property was rezoned 20 years ago was sufficient.

The state Land Use Board of Appeals ruled for the opponents, but the Oregon Court of Appeals disagreed, and the Oregon Supreme Court ultimately ruled that city officials were entitled to interpret their own development ordinance.

Protesters were on hand Wednesday on the new store's first day of business. What they hoped to accomplish, other than demonstrate their continued opposition to Walmart and the big-box retail industry it dominates, was unclear.

Walmart's tendency to pay its employees low wages while providing meager health care and other benefits is well known. But the company's record in this regard is little different than that of many other big-box chains, which are well represented in the Medford area but don't attract protesters.

Walmart may not provide the best jobs around, but in this economy, 375 jobs are better than no jobs.

And despite dire predictions that the Supercenter would drive small businesses under, the South Gateway center has seen new leases and expansions by existing businesses hoping to capitalize on the traffic generated by the Walmart project. Artisan Bakery has expanded, Mattress Land moved into the old Hollywood Video location and Yogurt Hut is thriving, as well as a Subway store displaced by Walgreen's.

The Walmart building, meanwhile, has turned out to be far more attractive than it might have been had the city not insisted on design modifications. Yes, it is enormous, but the front is designed to look like a cluster of separate storefronts, and the side facing South Pacific Highway has architectural elements that break up an otherwise bland expanse.

As for traffic, Center Drive has been improved as part of the South Medford Interchange Project, and signals have been installed at the main Walmart entrance.

So far, so good.