For several years the same drama with the same plot has been played out in hamlets across America: Walmart wanted a new store on a chosen tract but the company itself – not the merits of the land use decision – became the focal point of local debate. As I have written before, and for reasons I have yet to fully understand, Target, Kmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and other large box retailers seem to get a first round bye.
Walmart is (was?) a lightening rod for public hearing commentary unrelated to traffic, density, good planning or design. And I know. I have served on the front lines with Walmart on three occasions. I wanted to talk about traffic and opponents wanted to talk about employee benefits. I wanted to discuss consistency with the local comprehensive plan and opponents wanted to talk about working conditions in overseas supply factories.
It’s hard to win a heated zoning battle when opponents place a ten-gallon black hat on your head long before the hearing begins.
Which illustrates an important point. Land use decisions are seldom about land use. These decisions are often made in a tempest of accusations, fears, angers and other negative emotions that overshadow the rational aspects.
When it comes to being on the winning side of a city council split vote, a company’s or a developer’s reputation can be everything, something Walmart did little to address for years.
But at some point between now and the last time I worked with Walmart the company had a head-slapping moment. It finally woke up to the fact that its signature architectural trade dress (the large, bland, gray building) turned America off and it changed it much for the better. It realized that it could draw shoppers through single-themed advertizing related to low prices, but ignored the obvious fact that those shoppers often didn’t sit on the local city council.
Today, Walmart is keenly aware of its image. Like any good company that deals with millions of folks on a daily basis, it now places reputation and public relations near the top of its priority list. Its public relations consultant in North Carolina is the best in the business.
Walmart has undertaken several green initiatives and makes sure that you hear about them. Its stores now look more like a Main Street façade, and it doesn’t fight local efforts to require it.
And just last month, Walmart announced that it will commit a quarter of a BILLION dollars for the purchase of refrigerated trucks and other equipment so that it can deliver an estimated $2 BILLION dollars to the nation’s food banks over the next five years. Although it has given to such efforts in the past, it is – according to news releases – doubling its efforts to serve the nation’s hungry.
A local government should not, in any sane world, permanently rezone 30 acres for major retail use merely because the applicant is providing food to poor people 2,000 miles away. But I live my life in local government meetings, and I can tell you that we don’t live in a sane world.
Walmart is an American success story, and I’ve been proud to represent it on a few occasions at local hearings. What it has done is to find a newer and larger white hat that it can wear to the next showdown.
So . . . while BP is struggling to get new gas stations approved in Minnesota because of oil-slicked pelicans in the Gulf, Walmart will be opening new stores everywhere because its public image is, with great attention and effort, quite shiny. I think parts of the story have always been there. They just had to be told.
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