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Big Box Votes on the Ballot

| Written by Stacy Mitchell | No Comments | Updated on Nov 9, 2005 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at https://ilsr.org/election-results/

Agawam, Mass. – Voters soundly rejected two ballot measures that would have allowed National Realty & Development Corporation to build a 563,000-square-foot shopping center (about ten football fields, plus another 25 football fields worth of parking).

Although NRDC did not name tenants, the project likely would have included two or more big-box stores and numerous mid-sized and smaller chain retailers.

NRDC placed the measures on the ballot after both the planning board and city council rejected the development. The company then set up and bankrolled a group called Citizens in Favor of Retail to lobby voters.

At the last minute, NRDC even tried to bribe the community, offering to create a $1 million trust fund, with annual dividends going to local civic organizations and scholarships, if voters approved the project.

Agawam Citizens Against Reckless Development fought the project, arguing that it was out of scale with the community, would cause a major influx of traffic, and would create more economic costs than benefits. As part of its campaign, the group aired local radio spots and a video.

CARD also emphasized local authority. “[This is] about who controls zoning in Agawam,” CARD member Karl A. Merriam said. “Is it going to be a developer or is it going to be the town of Agawam?”

The final vote count was 5,739 against the developer and 3,219 in favor.

Charlevoix, Michigan – Voters in Charlevoix Township endorsed a 90,000-square-foot store size cap by 61 to 39 percent.

The measure also subjects development proposals over 20,000 square feet to additional review and permitting requirements. Projects over 50,000 square feet are further required to include a market feasibility study, a traffic study, and a plan for reusing the building should it become vacant. (For examples of different stores sizes, see How Big is Too Big?)

The township board had approved the size cap in May. But a group of citizens concerned about property rights placed the measure on the ballot.

“This vote shows the voters of this area have a long-term vision for the community and that they don’t want Charlevoix Township to look like every expressway exit,” John Winn, who campaigned for the limit, told the Petoskey News-Review.

A citizens group called This is Our Town pushed for the size limit after defeating plans for Wal-Mart supercenter in 2004. The group also persuaded neighboring Charlevoix City to cap stores at 45,000 square feet. The group now plans to ask other nearby townships, including Hayes, Eveline, Evangeline and Norwood, to adopt similar ordinances.

Ogunquit, Maine – By a margin of 71 to 29 percent, voters in this small town overwhelmingly approved a measure that bans formula restaurants.

The policy change was initiated by a citizen’s petition. Supporters ran a well-organized campaign that included direct outreach to voters, two mailings, and handing out homemade cookies that said “Yes on 3.”

Their message focused on maintaining the town’s character and keeping dollars circulating in the local economy.

The measure defines a formula restaurant as one that has “standardized features which cause the restaurant to be substantially identical to another restaurant regardless of ownership or location.”

Lorain, Ohio – By more than 2,500 votes, citizens rejected a plan to rezone 37 acres for Wal-Mart.

The rezoning had been approved by the City Council in April, but the West Side Preservation Group gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

“The people believe that Wal-Mart’s not good for Lorain,” Gerald Phillips of WSPG told the local paper. “We didn’t have a war chest. This was a basic, grassroots campaign.” As of Oct. 19, the group had put $2,700 into the effort, while Wal-Mart’s local front group, managed by a Cleveland-based PR firm, had raised more than $151,000

Texas – Voters approved by a 51 to 48 percent margin a measure that would change the state constitution to give cities more leeway to provide long-term tax incentives to developers.

Proposition 3 was prompted by a court decision that held that a $21 million incentive package the city of Bee Cave promised to the developer of a large retail complex imposed an unconstitutional debt on future city leaders. The case was brought by Save Barton Springs, an environmental group concerned about the impact the development would have on ground water.

The ballot initiative overturned the ruling by altering the constitution to allow such subsidies. Supporters said voting yes on 3 would spur economic development. Opponents argued cities should not be handing out public dollars to favored corporations, while small businesses are left to sink or swim on their own.

Boonville, MO – Wal-Mart spent tens of thousands of dollars on a campaign to persuade the voters in Boonville, a town of 8,000 people, to allow it abandon its existing store and build a larger supercenter just a stone’s throw away.

The vote was 1,386 to 680 in favor of Wal-Mart. Nearly 60 % of registered voters did not cast ballots.

As of eight days before the election, Wal-Mart, working through a local front group, had spent $26,000 on the campaign, more than ten times what opponents had raised. That figure is likely to rise substantially as final spending reports come in.

Sandy, Utah – By 10,421 to 9,203, voters approved a plan to rezone land for a Wal-Mart and Lowe’s development. The City Council had approved the rezoning last November, but a citizens group, Save Our Communities, gathered signatures to put the issue before voters.

Ultimately, SOC, which ran a vigorous grassroots campaign, did not have the resources or votes to win. SOC spent about $16,000. It is not yet known how much Friends of Quarry Bend, which was financed almost entirely by Wal-Mart, spent.

“I believe that if the vote had taken place before they had started campaigning, we would have won hands-on,” Robyn Bagley, a member of SOC, told Deseret Morning News.

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About Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and directs its Community-Scaled Economy Initiative, which produces research and analysis, and partners with a range of allies to design and implement policies that curb economic consolidation and strengthen community-rooted enterprise.  She is the author of Big-Box Swindle and also produces a popular monthly newsletter, the Hometown Advantage Bulletin.  Connect with her on twitter and catch her TEDx Talk: Why We Can’t Shop Our Way to a Better Economy. More

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