1/04/2009

Wal-Mart Strikes Again

A Wal-Mart chain storeImage via Wikipedia

The Wally World blight continues to spread:

LOCUST GROVE, Va. — Wal-Mart wants to build a Supercenter within a cannonshot of where Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant first fought, a proposal that has preservationists rallying to protect the key Civil War site.

A who's who of historians including filmmaker Ken Burns and Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough sent a letter last month to H. Lee Scott, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., urging the company to build somewhere farther from the Wilderness Battlefield.

"The Wilderness is an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and it cannot be moved," said the letter from 253 scholars and others.

Wal-Mart and its supporters point out that the 138,000-square-foot store would be right behind a bank and a small strip mall, a full mile from entrance to the site of the 1864 clash that left thousands dead and hastened the war's end.

Local leaders also want the $500,000 in tax revenue they estimate the big box store will generate for rural Orange County, a gradually growing area about 60 miles southwest of Washington.

"In these economic times, the fact that Wal-Mart wants to come into the county is an economic plus," said R. Mark Johnson, a tire shop owner and chairman of the county's board of supervisors. "This is hardly pristine wilderness we're talking about."

Wonder if Mr. Johnson has given any thought to the fact that Wal-Mart Supercenters include the Tire & Lube service meaning he'll likely be run out of business. Or maybe he's counting on their horrible service and terrible products to chase his customers back after a few visits. Either way, sounds like Mr. Johnson is gambling with his community's heritage and his own financial well being.

Grant's Union troops were headed to Richmond on May 4, 1864, when they confronted Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The Battle of the Wilderness involved more than 100,000 Union troops and 61,000 Confederates. The fighting, according to National Park Service estimates, left more than 4,000 dead and 20,000 wounded.

Some 2,700 acres of the Wilderness Battlefield are protected as part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Preservationists regularly square off against developers in Virginia, where much of the Civil War was fought.

This dispute, however, has stirred an outcry similar to the one in 1994 over The Walt Disney Co.'s plans to build a $650 million theme park within miles of the Manassas Battlefield. The entertainment giant bowed to public pressure and abandoned the project.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, which opened nearly 200 stores in the U.S. in 2007, said it studied a lengthy list of sites in Orange County before settling on the spot near the battlefield and its gentle hills dissected by neat footpaths.

"We recognize the significance of the Wilderness Battlefield, but we are not building on the battlefield," said Keith Morris, a spokesman for the world's largest retailer.

Preservationists argue the store site is still significant because it was used as a staging area by Union troops.

"Is it blood-soaked ground? No, but it is a part of the battlefield," said Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust, which lists the Wilderness Battlefield as endangered.

Supervisors will have the final say, after county planners decide if the retailer should be granted a zoning variance. Hearings likely will be scheduled in February and March.

Supervisor Teri Pace said there are "more appropriate places" in the county for Wal-Mart to build. She envisions an economic development plan that taps the county's history _ including President James Madison's restored home, Montpelier _ and its agricultural heritage, which now includes several popular wineries.

"If we define ourselves and promote ourselves as something different, with tourism and agriculture, we really have huge opportunities here," Pace said.

At least there's one voice of reason on their board. If only more communities realized that Wal-Mart will not bring them the tax revenue they so desperately desire. After all, Wal-Mart has a long history of striking deals with cities to build these suburban blights based on "tax breaks" and agreements to not pay certain taxes for a period of time. Then the moment the agreement is set to expire and they are set to pay the sales taxes they up and move just outside the city limits leaving a huge empty eyesore that no other store can ever fill.

It would be much smarter to decline Wal-Mart in the long run and take the money they're going to ask the county for (they always do) and use that to improve historical and sustainable tourism in the area.


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