The city of Bennington, Vermont, has enacted a store size cap ordinance that effectively puts an end to attempts by Wal-Mart to build a giant supercenter.
“The concern has been that if a single retailer becomes too large and too powerful it destroys all competition in the marketplace. And we want to avoid that,” said Bennington planning director Dan Monks.
The ordinance limits stores to no more than 75,000 square feet in one commercial district and 50,000 square feet in the rest of the city. It’s an interim measure that will remain in effect for up to two years or until the city adopts permanent regulations governing large-scale retail development.
Bennington, a community of 9,200 people in the southwest corner of the state, already has a 50,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store. Last winter, a real estate broker approached the city with plans for a 150,000-square-foot supercenter (about the size of three football fields).
The proposal prompted a broad public debate about big-box stores. In January, the Bennington County Regional Commission and the Vermont Smart Growth Collaborative organized a public forum and panel discussion with several state and national experts.
One of the panelists, Virginia-based economist Thomas Muller, presented evidence that a supercenter would generate “no net benefit to the local and state economy.” He said that the proposed Wal-Mart would absorb more than one-quarter of all grocery sales in the county, forcing one or more existing grocery stores to close.
Bennington is not the only Vermont town Wal-Mart has its eye on it. The corporation has proposed building at least seven supercenters around the state.
In response, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the entire state of Vermont on this year’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. “The distinctive characteristics that define Vermont could be lost if sprawl-like development is allowed to occur in a haphazard, out-of-scale, land-consuming manner,” the National Trust said.
A number of statewide organizations, including the Preservation Trust of Vermont and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, along with grassroots citizens groups in several of the targeted communities, have also expressed opposition to massive edge-of-town supercenters, which they argue would undermine the state’s character and environment, and ultimately its economy.
“That said, we do have a dilemma. Since several Ames Stores closed a few years ago, residents in several communities feel like they do not have places to buy basic goods,” said Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust. Ames was a regional chain of discount department stores that folded two years ago. Its stores were significantly smaller than those proposed by Wal-Mart (one-third the physical size and about one-seventh the size of Wal-Mart in terms of sales volume and economic impact).
Bruhn hopes some towns will look to fill the gap left by Ames by expanding locally owned businesses. Those that opt to accept Wal-Mart, he says, should insist—by adopting ordinances similar to Bennington’s—that the company build much smaller and more centrally located stores.
When Wal-Mart first attempted to expand into Vermont in the early 1990s, strong local opposition forced the company to abandon plans for several stores. Of the four stores that were eventually built, three were significantly smaller than the company’s standard outlets. In Bennington, for example, the community insisted that Wal-Mart locate in a former Woolworth’s, rather than building a store twice as large on undeveloped land.