The “guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement” faced off with a spokesperson from the national chain at Thursday’s luncheon meeting of the Hood River Rotary Club.
Al Norman, author of “Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart,” arrived in Hood River to take on Amy Hill, Wal-Mart community affairs director for the western region, over the giant retailer’s controversial plans to build a 185,000 square foot Supercenter at the junction of Frankton and Country Club roads.
“It’s not how big you grow, it’s how you grow big,” said Norman, who upheld that the proposed new Wal-Mart was “sprawl’s last hurdle” in Hood River County. He said action recently taken by both city and county officials now restricted the size of commercial buildings to 50,000 square feet.
“There are more than 3,000 Wal-Marts but there is only one Hood River and there are two things wrong with this project — it is the wrong size and in the wrong place,” said Norman.
Hill said Wal-Mart needed the bigger store in Hood River to meet a growing customer demand but would “far exceed” its standard architectural plans for that facility. She said the final designs would be submitted to the county by June 14 and include a topographical layout that would use landscaped buffers to screen the store.
“I think you will find that it will be very compatible,” said Hill. “Like other businesses we want to expand and grow to meet the needs of our customers.”
To Norman’s charge that the larger Wal-Mart would take away jobs by endangering small businesses, Hill countered that the expanded enterprise would provide 200 additional employment opportunities.
“We are not new to Hood River, we have been part of the community since 1992,” said Hill.
Hill’s assertion that Wal-Mart only had 189 “dark” stores which had been vacated for bigger facilities was refuted by Norman, who claimed the retailer had more than 400 “dead” retail outlets, many of which were left empty to ward off competitors.
“This is a company that doesn’t believe bigger is better, this is a company that believes bigger is everything,” said Norman.
Hill said, “There is no doubt in my mind there will be a new use for our existing store quite readily.”
When asked whether Wal-Mart would relocate if the application was denied, Hill became evasive and said, “We hope not. At this time we don’t have plans to do anything but the reality remains that our store is too small to serve our customers.”
Norman contended that the 72,000 square foot existing Wal-Mart provided sufficient floor space and said, as it was, the company only paid the city $23,000 per year in property taxes — a small return for the threat it brought to the local economy.
“Anyone who reads the comprehensive plan for the county will realize this is a bad fit, it just doesn’t make sense,” said Norman, describing the Supercenter plans as “frivolous and arbitrary.”
Hill claimed that Wal-Mart had turned over nearly $50,000 in charitable contributions to the Hood River community within the past year and a total of $200 million nationwide.
“We believe our growth represents the changing needs of the community and the real reality is that our associates in Hood River hear every day from customers how glad they are to have us here,” Hill said.
Norman was brought from Massachusetts for the two-day visit to Hood River by the Citizens for Responsible Growth, a land-use watchdog group dedicated to promoting sustainable development.