On Tuesday, voters in the small town of Damariscotta, Maine, overwhelmingly approved a local law barring stores over 35,000 square feet (about the size of a medium grocery store).
The vote puts an end to Wal-Mart’s plans to build a 187,000-square-foot supercenter in this village of just 2,000 people.
The measure was approved by a 62 to 38 percent margin in what officials say may be the largest election turnout in the town’s history. More than 1,200 ballots were cast, representing about 80 percent of voters.
Damariscotta has a lively downtown and numerous locally owned businesses, including an 85-year-old grocery store, a pharmacy, bookstore, hardware store, and department store.
There are already three Wal-Mart stores to the north, west, and south of town, each about thirty minutes away. Last year, Wal-Mart announced its intention to further saturate the region by opening a supercenter on the outskirts of Damariscotta.
A group of citizens came together to fight the proposal. They formed Our Town Damariscotta and gathered enough signatures to place the size cap before voters.
Our Town ran a strong campaign, outmaneuvering Wal-Mart, which bankrolled its own “astroturf” group to defeat the measure, complete with lawn signs, a barrage of direct mail, and newspaper ads.
Our Town recruited dozens of volunteers, set up phone banks to contact voters, distributed lawn signs and baseball caps, mailed flyers, and hosted numerous public forums with expert speakers.
Local business owners threw their support behind the cap. Virtually every storefront in town displayed a bright red poster supporting the cap. The local Chamber of Commerce held a press conference to endorse the measure.
A big challenge emerged just two weeks before the vote when a deeply flawed study on the economic impact of the proposed supercenter was released. The study, commissioned by the town and paid for by Wal-Mart, concluded that the supercenter would be a boon to the local economy and would raise wages in both the retail and non-retail sectors.
But Our Town quickly countered by issuing two rebuttals to the study, one produced by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and another by consultant David Versel. At a public hearing, the head of Planning Decisions, the firm that conducted the study, was sharply questioned by members of the public armed with the rebuttals.
Perhaps Our Town’s savviest move was making their campaign regional. When Wal-Mart threatened to locate just beyond Damariscotta’s borders if barred from the town itself, Our Town reached out to residents of neighboring communities, who launched their own campaigns to implement identical size caps.
Last Saturday, the adjacent town of Nobleboro gave preliminary approval to a cap. Next week, Newcastle will hold its own vote on the issue. At least one other town is likely to follow. The end result may be the exclusion of big-box stores regionwide.