COMMENTARY: A Wal-Mart Déjà-Vu?

COMMENTARY: A Wal-Mart Déjà-Vu?

By Elizabeth Courtney, VNRC Executive Director
December 2008

I’ve been in the environmental field for some 35 years now.  And sometimes I have to laugh (or cry) when I realize that an issue we’re currently working on is the same or similar to one that we’ve struggled with years earlier.

As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s like déjà-vu all over again.”

In 2004 I wrote a commentary in the Rutland Herald about a 1996 project we worked on to help revitalize downtown Rutland.  That commentary is still relevant:

“Killington, Pico, Mendon Mountain, Salt Ash and Shrewsbury Peak stand as a

lush, natural backdrop in contrast to downtown Rutland, its distinctive

architecture a monument to the rise and fall of the economic engines that

have provided livelihoods for generations in the community. The story is

told by the old glove factory that now houses the food coop and the

revitalized Paramount Theater, the railroad infrastructure of the marble

industry’s heyday and Depot Park at the entrance to the 1996 Wal-Mart


But wait, did you hear “Wal-Mart” in the esteemed lineup of historic contributions to a healthy downtown?  How can that be?

The answer is that Rutland City took control of a threatening situation and turned it into a real opportunity. The city knew that if a super-sized Wal-Mart positioned itself in a farm field in Rutland Town, two miles from the downtown, that would be the death knell for downtown Rutland’s already tenuous economic health.

Rutland City recognized that in order to survive, it needed a downsized, downtown retail anchor store. Wal-Mart agreed to be that store.  Helped and encouraged by the host community and the state’s oldest, largest environmental group, Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), the project sped through the permit process in an unheard-of eight months. Typically, big box projects take years, not months to permit.

In its letter to the District Commission VNRC wrote:

“The project now before you in Rutland (City) is a good example of how development should occur in Vermont communities. It is located downtown, reuses existing buildings, is sized at an appropriate scale for the site location and the community, does not add to sprawl and the gobbling up of more open land and does not appear to have any adverse impacts on natural resources.”

This was a great first step for a Vermont community to take in handling the initial wave

of Wal-Mart stores in the Green Mountain state. Of the four Wal-Marts permitted in the late1990s, three were built in existing shopping centers or were close to or in downtown locations.

Rutland City, Bennington and Berlin all knew they had much to lose if Wal-Marts were built outside existing commercial centers. They understood that the local economy actually benefits from bountiful farms and forests, pristine environment and signature landscapes. These are among the assets that attract people from around the world who long to be in a place that has a robust natural environment and has not lost its Main Street to the haphazard sprawl of Wall Street’s big box concessions.

For centuries, the traditional settlement pattern of compact town centers surrounded by productive agricultural and forested lands has served Vermont communities well and will help us to be more resilient and self reliant during the energy and climate challenges of the 21st century.

The first round of Wal-Mart proposals was well over a decade ago. Fast forward to 2008. Wal-Mart is back. Vermont is once again poised to respond. This time the story repeats itself in St. Albans Town and St. Albans City. (In 1994 the proposed project was in a cornfield two miles outside the city limits and was stopped by a Supreme Court decision in 1997.) The 2008 proposed project is in the very same cornfield. This time, unlike the Rutland story of 1996, St. Albans City has failed to bring a downsized super store into their downtown .

Wal-Mart has missed an incredible opportunity to build in St. Albans City. The store’s developers could have had their shop up and running years ago, if they had just downsized, downtown.  The fertile fields that surround the city could be free to continue to grow local food for the community. And the signature Vermont landscape could remain just that − bringing prosperity for all.

The fact is that we cannot afford to squander any of our limited resources, whether they consist of agricultural land or great existing building stock in our downtowns.  If we’re destined to have déjà -vu experiences over and over, let’s make sure they reflect the successes that we want to repeat, like Rutland City’s downtown Wal-Mart.