Jul 29, 2014
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What Are We Saying No To?

How my hometown dealt with a Wal-Mart moving in, a little insight from my old high school history teacher (who's also still on the Common Council) and a few questions I'd love to see pondered in public discussions.

What Are We Saying No To? What Are We Saying No To?

I don’t claim to have all of the answers about Wal-Mart’s project, but I can tell you about how Wal-Mart impacted my hometown.

About 20 years ago, Wal-Mart planted its boxy-blue presence on Burbank Road in Wooster, Ohio near the Mystic Meadows horse farm.

At the time, the people living in the county produced everything: milk and trucks, paintbrushes and plastic containers, steel and oil, brakes and titanium gadgets. And up until 2009, we had Freedlanders, the oldest department store in the country, in our downtown.

The day Wal-Mart opened in the summer of 1992 was admittedly bittersweet for my family.

I often drove an extra mile or two to my south side destinations to see the morning fog burning off the pasture to catch a glimpse of a horse galloping along the fence line. The land gently sloped. The horses were spectacular. Still, they disappeared, and the fences, barn and farmhouse were demolished.

At the time, I didn’t feel sad though.

My family anxiously waited for the Wal-Mart to come in because at the time, hundreds of family farms had been auctioned off and many of those families struggled to find work. We knew we wouldn’t need to go downtown much if the super-center opened. But that was OK and it really didn’t seem to matter to us that the overpriced department store closed. We wanted cheap stuff because we didn’t have a lot of money. And we wanted to work.

So the Wal-Mart, complete with a hitching post for the Amish to tether their horses to, opened just before I left Ohio to move to Wisconsin in 1992. Most of the farmers’ wives went to work at Wal-Mart. And although my parents still live on the farm, they sold most of the animals a few years after I left and my mom worked there for a few years.

And then Applebee’s, Tumbleweed, Blockbuster, Loews, Best Buy, the Cleveland Clinic, Wayne Savings and Loan, JC Penny, Elder-Beermann, Bob Evans restaurant, Hampton Inn, Wendy’s, McDonalds, Fashion Bug, Hallmark, a Cinemark 10-screen movie theater, and a host of other boxy retailers came. The retail district was tightly consolidated into an area about the size of four city-sized blocks. The condos and bigger houses cropped up around the area. And people were employed, but many were just scraping by.

And many people were happy to have a job at these places.

Then, Freedlanders and a number of downtown businesses closed. Some new commercial businesses started up, but only after the city gave substantial tax breaks to viable businesses to plant their commercial presence in Wooster.

My old high school history teacher, Jon Ulbright, who I would characterize as a skeptical Democrat, was on the Common Council when the Wal-Mart deal went through and he still has a seat on the Council. He voted against the Wal-Mart for a number of reasons, only to be outvoted. Today, he maintains the decision made by his colleagues, who were on the Common Council at the time, was the wrong one.

The argument to allow Wal-Mart to come in was rooted in the belief that the City needed economic development to survive, but in Ulbright’s eyes the City didn’t factor in several costs including roads and lights, and city planners failed to understand the long-term impact of future services that would be needed to support a business district.

“People tell me that Democrats are anti-business, but I’m not anti-business. I was and still am against growing beyond our means and big box stores,” he said. “I was taught that if you can’t take care of what you have, you don’t take on anymore.”

At the time, the City annexed and rezoned the property for the commercial retail district. Now, the Police Chief in Wooster is asking for a fifth zone of coverage to cover the annexed land and the fire chief says they need a new fire station in the area because of the increased population.

“And we just don’t have the money,” he said during an interview.

Plus, Ulbright says the community lost what he calls “mom and pop” retailers like Freedlanders and those farms.

“I’m a downtown person,” Ulbright said. “I have no use for Wal-Mart…. If I could undo all of that development and restore the farmland, I would.”

Also, Stanley Gault, the CEO of Rubbermaid and ultimately Goodyear Tire, was good friends with a board member of Wal-Mart, at the time and the new Wal-Mart was supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the country, Ulbright said.

“What we got was a Super Wal-Mart, but it’s nothing special,” Ulbright said.

As I said earlier, I don’t have all of the answers about Wal-Mart. My point in bringing all of this up is to help promote discussion, not my opinion.

Ulbright raises some important issues that Caledonia officials might consider when making the decision on whether to move forward with the project, no matter where it’s located. Economic growth isn’t just about increasing revenue for the Village or even providing jobs; it’s about meeting the needs of the community as a whole. Still, development needs to be sustainable long-term, mindful of the environment, and good for the people who live in the region.

On the other hand, we cannot as a community ignore that the tax revenue generated by the development would be going to Racine Unified, the Village, Gateway, the County and the State and that it would be a continuous revenue stream for years. The Village is loosing some state funds, but the school district stands to lose $25 million. Gateway Technical's enrollment is at an historic high and those are people who are trying to better themselves. The Village may have 3.8 percent unemployment, but we also need to be mindful of the severe impact of the economy on Racine, which has 14 percent of its population out of work. To ignore our neighbors needs, I believe, makes us bad neighbors.

But the bottom line questions that need to be answered are: what are all of the benefits and what are all of the costs to this project? Are we as a community willing to accept the consequences if we do allow this project to move forward and if we don't allow it, can we accept what we are saying no to?

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