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Landowner says Wal-Mart made him an offer

Hood River resident Larry Visser told city council members on Monday that Wal-Mart representatives have expressed an interest in purchasing 9.3 acres of his property at the eastern end of Country Club Road for a superstore.

The economic pros and cons of allowing a "big box" giant to settle in Hood River pervaded the public hearing on a proposed reduction in the allowable size of commercial buildings.

About 40 people attended the public forum to speak for or against the proposed footprint ordinance which, if approved, would limit the size of commercial structures within the municipality to 50,000 square feet or a combined contiguous length of 300 feet. That would make the allowable size of these buildings smaller than the existing 72,000 square foot Wal Mart store but larger than Safeway, which is 46,000 square feet.

Twelve audience members at the Aug. 13 hearing spoke in support of placing size restrictions on large-scale stores, mostly to protect the "special character" and of the historical community and the livelihood of its many "mom and pop" establishments.

"The question is not whether we'll have 'big box' stores, we already have Wal-Mart, the question is whether we'll have more," said Susan Crowley. "We're talking about assuring that 'big box' doesn't become a 'mammoth box.'"

Susan Hull, who has owned and operated Hood River Stationers in downtown Hood River for the past 22 years, said small businesses were the mainstay of a community. She said that for every dollar spent in a large chain store only six cents was returned to the community. In contrast, she said that for every dollar spent at a "mom and pop" enterprise, 60 cents was fed back into other local businesses and services.

She said when Wal-Mart was built in the early '90s, many downtown businesses had to "tweak inventory" to adjust to the loss of clientele and she was unsure whether they could survive economically if a superstore came to town.

"Any bigger than 72,000 square feet and I don't know where I'll be," she said.

However, nine people at the hearing argued that many smaller businesses benefited from Hood River's chain stores since these retail giants brought shoppers to the area from across the Mid-Columbia.

"We really have a very sick economy around here and we need a mixture of large and small businesses -- large ones bring people to town who shop at smaller ones," said Robert Hastings, who spoke as a private citizen.

Craig Schmidt said that before Wal-Mart settled in Hood River, many county residents had traveled to Portland and The Dalles for household needs. In addition to the convenience brought by siting a Wal-Mart in Hood River, he said the discount store had proven itself as a "good community partner" by giving thousands of dollars to support local service agencies and programs.

"If you pass this ordinance and you send Wal-Mart to another community, you send jobs to another community and you send shoppers to another community," said Schmidt, who spoke as a private citizen.

Several of those in attendance pointed out that there were no properties within the city of Hood River which the proposed footprint code would apply to if it was adopted, especially since the new property sought by Wal-Mart lies within the county's planning jurisdiction. However, city staffers and council members argued that, without proper design guidelines, a developer could piece several smaller commercial properties together for a large-scale store without being held to any standards. Cindy Walbridge, city planning director, said if the footprint ordinance is adopted, the municipality will approach the county to request that it enact a similar code.

After listening to two hours of testimony from both sides, the city council decided to deliberate the issue on Sept. 10. Although no further oral comments will be taken, the city is accepting written statements until 5 p.m. on Aug. 22 that will be entered into the official record.

During its next discussion, Councilor Chuck Haynie said he wanted to address whether the new footprint code had become "illegally prejudiced" against Wal-Mart.

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