To Al Norman, Wal-Mart fight is about way of life

Al Norman wasn’t looking for a fight when he was asked by a friend in his hometown of Greenfield, Mass., in the late summer of 1993 to lead a campaign against Wal-Mart. The giant retailer was 12 weeks away from a vote that would seal its deal to build a 123,000 square foot store at the edge of the historic New England town of 19,000 residents.

The town council and the townspeople had already voted to re-zone the property Wal-Mart wanted from industrial to commercial, but a citizen’s group had put up a last-ditch effort to block the store by gathering enough signatures for a referendum.

Local business owners were worried about being able to compete with Wal-Mart, and other citizens had begun to question turning over some of Greenfield’s last industrial land for a mammoth retail store that threatened to suck the life out of the downtown.

Business owners and some citizens were concerned, but Al Norman couldn’t have cared less.

“I wasn’t paying much attention to this,” Norman said. “My first reaction was, why bother? Who cares?” He’d been asked to lead the campaign against Wal-Mart in part because of his past involvement with political campaigns. He’d lived in Greenfield for many years, even raised his family there, but he was admittedly “disengaged” from his own town.

He studied the issue, concluding that the main message was that Wal-Mart “was going to devastate town.” But his most important criteria was how long his campaign work would last. He had other things to do — not least of which was his full-time job; since 1979 Norman has worked for Mass Home Care and he is currently executive director of the nonprofit network of 30 senior services agencies that help elderly people stay living at home.

“They said it would be about 12 weeks,” he recalled. “I said, fine. And here I am, nine years later.”

Norman is “here” nine years later for the sole reason that Greenfield voters narrowly defeated Wal-Mart in what was then one of the first cases of a town fighting the corporate giant. And “here” means many things: last week “here” was Hood River; “here” during the past few months has ranged from Bedford, N.H., to Chalmette, La.; and “here” is at the forefront of a crusade against big box retailers that he calls Sprawl-Busters.

The defeat of Wal-Mart in Greenfield gained widespread media attention. Time and Newsweek magazines as well as The New York Times ran stories about it, and Norman was interviewed on CNN and National Public Radio.

“It was small town versus the Goliath,” Norman said. “My phone started to ring a lot.” He began publishing a newsletter about similar battles that were cropping up around the country as citizen’s groups from coast to coast called Norman for advice on fighting big-box retailers.

In 1995 Norman was interviewed on “60 Minutes” as part of a story on retail sprawl. The response generated from that prompted him write a book that people could use as a handbook on fighting superstore sprawl. It took him until 1999 to get “Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart! How You can Stop Superstore Sprawl in Your Hometown” published, but in the meantime he’d started a website and was getting inquiries not only from across the U.S. but as far away as Germany and Japan.

“All of this was happening without any plan,” Norman said. “It was not my intention to get caught up in it.” But it hit an emotional cord with him — big-box stores swallowing up huge chunks of limited land and closing down locally-owned businesses.

“It’s really not about stores,” Norman said. “It’s about our pride in where we live. It’s the whole concept of the last special places on Earth.”

For Norman, a former reporter and columnist for Newsweek, it’s also about what he sees as setting the record straight.

“It’s frustrating to see the same lies again and again,” he said. In his book, and in towns where he’s invited by citizen’s groups to speak, Norman rails against what he calls Wal-Mart’s “disinformation campaign.” He disputes everything from Wal-Mart’s claims of creating hundreds of new jobs (that doesn’t take into account all the jobs lost from other businesses that can’t compete with Wal-Mart and close, Norman says) to Wal-Mart’s calling employees “associates” (Norman calls them non-union workers) to Wal-Mart’s premise of “full-time” employment being 28 hours a week and “good” wages being $7 an hour.

(Wal-Mart spokesperson Stephanie Eaton said Monday that full time at the Hood River store is 34 hours a week; starting wage is $6.75 an hour.)

Despite fighting what is arguably a losing battle (Wal-Mart has stated as its corporate goal to open a new store every day of the year this year) Norman savors each victory. He’s worked with about 900 communities during the past nine years; 164 of them have successfully kept a big-box store out.

Norman spends much of his spare time updating the Sprawl-Busters website. He posts information submitted to him from around the world about big-box battles and fields about 40 serious e-mail inquiries a day from citizen’s groups.

That’s how Norman got involved with the Hood River Citizen’s for Responsible Growth (CRG), who sponsored his three-day visit last week. CRG contacted him last fall and continued through the winter to send him information about Wal-Mart’s plans for closing its present store and building a 185,000 square foot supercenter at the intersection of Country Club and Frankton roads.

He agreed to the visit only after thoroughly researching the issues and concluding that he could be of some benefit. (CRG paid him $3,500, which included travel expenses and the months of preparation he did.)

“I’m here to deliver a message of empowerment,” Norman said. “Wal-Mart is not a government mandate.”

Norman, who calls his wife a “Wal-Mart widow,” is weary of his ongoing battle, but plans to continue his fight against superstore sprawl. He’s unfazed by Wal-Mart’s attacks on him — he enjoys reading complaints about him in the media by Wal-Mart spokespeople.

“I know Wal-Mart is watching every move I make,” he said. “They spend a lot of time attacking me personally, but not my message. They know I don’t say anything that’s not available in the public record.”

He believes Wal-Mart will eventually “stumble.” He compares the growing anti-big-box movement to the anti-chain store movement of the 1930s, when A&P’s were “very threatening” to local merchants.

“They were the Wal-Marts of their time,” he said, noting that the stores have all but disappeared.

“I’m not setting my watch to it,” Norman said. “But I’d like to see big box stores fail so I can go on and do something else.”

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