Plans are now moving through the bureaucratic pipeline to allow the Wal-Mart store on Highway 93 to buy out its closest neighbor, the Missoula Southern Baptist Church, re-zone the two-acre parcel to a “neighborhood commercial” designation (the same designation used for a corner bakery or pizza parlor), tear down the existing structure and add some 97,000 square feet of supermarket and 300 more parking spaces to an area already supersaturated with supermarkets.
If the plan is approved by City Council on August 14, the expanded Wal-Mart will come in addition to the 200,000 plus square-foot Wal-Mart Superstore slated for construction at Mullan Road and Reserve Street less than five miles away. In corporate parlance, this is the process of the “unquestioned ubiquity” of the world’s largest retailer, whose annual sales revenues exceed the Gross Domestic Product of Israel, Greece, Ireland and Egypt.
Plans for Wal-Mart’s expansion were spelled out on July 18 during a marathon session of the Missoula Consolidated Planning Board, which ran from 7:30 p.m. until midnight. Much of the discussion centered around assuaging the particular concerns of Wal-Mart’s immediate neighbors about trucks and trash compactors, landscaping buffers, sidewalk improvements, traffic snarls, the persistent nuisance of overnight RV camping in Wal-Mart’s parking lot, and the like.
The meeting also focused on 16 “conditions of approval” spelled out by the Office of Planning and Grants (OPG), which include the widening, reconstruction and street lighting of Miller Creek Road, the addition of an ADA-compliant Mountain Line bus stop, a bike path through the property, and other reconfigurations and redesigns.
The meeting featured its share of expansion proponents. Among them was Webb Harrington, a Linda Vista resident and the principal of nearby Cold Springs Elementary School. Harrington commended Wal-Mart for its ongoing business partnership with Cold Springs School, providing the school not only with monetary donations but also classroom volunteers, as well as an outdoor classroom area for students.
“They have been a good neighbor for our school and our neighborhood and have been willing to work with us on almost any point,” Webb says.
Similarly, Pete Hathaway, director of vocational services at Opportunity Resources offered his support for the expansion, saying that Wal-Mart has been a good employer of people with disabilities.
“Wal-Mart has donated thousands [of dollars] to Opportunity Resource—clothing, furniture, cleaning supplies—and we have distributed those items to people we provide services to, many of whom are economically disadvantaged,” says Hathaway. “We think that Wal-Mart is a good asset to our community and we support their expansion.”
However, not everyone in attendance was as enthralled with the expansion idea. Nikolai Cocergine challenged the notion that this expansion qualifies as a “neighborhood commercial use,” since Wal-Mart draws from at least a 50- to 75-mile radius.
“This [store] is going to draw from the entire Bitterroot area,” says Cocergine. “If they think that traffic is going to be kept at a minimum, I think that’s absurd.”
Cocergine’s comments highlight a section of the OPG’s findings of fact, which states, “Although the traffic study shows that the expanded store will generate additional total trips to this destination, the end result should be a net reduction in the number of total vehicle trips in the community due to the provision of multiple shopping services at one location.”
This raises an interesting question as to what role OPG, the Planning Board and City Council can—or should—play in evaluating the broader economic ramifications of a zoning change. Although OPG does not typically ask for a marketing study or economic impact survey from its applicants, such a practice was once required for some new shopping centers, such as Southgate Mall.
As Jeff Stevens, a member of the South 39th Street Neighborhood Council notes, there are already six supermarkets within a five-minute drive of Wal-Mart, which means that if the expansion does not induce additional traffic from the Bitterroot, then it must take business away from existing supermarkets.
“One of the things that’s going to be a big problem with this particular proposed expansion is that you’re going to be pitting unionized, well-paid, health-benefited workers against little-better-than minimum-wage, non-benefited, part-time workers, which would be a very sad thing for the economy of Missoula,” says neighborhood activist Judy Smith. “This severe negative impact on existing stores, many of them Main Street mom and pops, has earned Wal-Mart a reputation for killing small downtowns.”
As Smith notes, several studies have shown that for every two jobs created by a new Wal-Mart, three are lost, most of which tend to be higher wage or locally owned positions. In fact, San Francisco’s city council was so concerned about the loss of business to its downtown (and predominantly locally owned) businesses, which were losing an estimate $11-24 million annually to box stores, that it imposed a moratorium on their construction.
As for what can “be done” about the expansion of Wal-Mart in Missoula (as I’ve been asked about recently), one provision of the zoning law considers whether the proposed zoning “promotes the health and general welfare” of the community. Whether City Council will interpret those words to include retail redundancy, the exportation of dollars and jobs and the homogenization of the Missoula landscape is anyone’s guess.
However, it should be noted that with three property owners within 150 feet of Wal-Mart having submitted “letters of concern” about the expansion, approval of Wal-Mart’s zoning change will require a two-thirds majority of City Council.