In June, residents of Belfast, Maine voted 2-to-1 to ban retail stores larger than 75,000 square feet. They also elected two big box opponents to the City Council by substantial margins.
Belfast, located in the fast-growing mid-coast region about two and a half hours north of Portland, has a population of 6,400. It’s 18th century downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The debate over big box stores began last spring when Wal-Mart optioned land to build a 160,000 square foot supercenter in a hayfield on the outskirts of town. The City Council, by a 3-2 vote, immediately enacted a moratorium on commercial development larger than 25,000 square feet. The mayor and three city councilors who favored the moratorium and scheduled the referendum endured heavy criticism for their “anti-growth” position.
In the end, however, voters endorsed the council’s move. “It’s a vindication of the referendum and moratorium,” Mayor Michael Hurley told the Maine Times. The moratorium enabled the community to engage in “an incredibly valuable debate across kitchen tables, in coffee shops, on the street corner, in barbershops, in the co-op. People learned a lot about our economy and about the predatory practices” of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
Driving the debate and public education campaign was a grassroots group known as Belfast First. In letters to the editor, public meetings, and printed materials, the group argued that large-scale chain stores would undermine Belfast’s small town feel and sense of community. Their campaign apparently moved many voters; informal surveys several months before the referendum suggested that about 60 percent favored Wal-Mart and other big box stores.
According to the mayor, Belfast First’s greatest achievement was convincing several prominent community leaders to appear in a full-page newspaper ad in support of outlawing big boxes. The participants were not only well-known, but native to Belfast, a fact that helped eliminate the perception that big box opponents were all newcomers to the area. Natives vs. newcomers has been a fault-line in Belfast politics since the 1960s and 1970s, when many hippies, artists, and back-to-the-land folks settled in the community.
The vote made Belfast the first community in Maine to ban big box stores. Wal-Mart is working to build about half a dozen new supercenters in Maine and has encountered organized opposition in several communities.