Wal-Mart already operates twenty stores in Maine, including three supercenters, and ranks as the fourth largest employer in this state of 1.2 million people. But that’s not enough. Wal-Mart wants to open supercenters, which combine general merchandise with a full supermarket, up and down the coast. This would enable the company to become the dominant, if not only, retailer in many of Maine’s communities.
At every turn, however, Wal-Mart is facing organized opposition from local residents. Concerns center on the loss of locally owned businesses and the erosion of the state’s unique character. Many believe the new stores will cause a net increase in the cost of public services and exacerbate traffic and crime.
Another issue of particular concern to Mainers is that Wal-Mart imports most of its clothing and shoes from overseas sweatshops, where workers earn below poverty wages. Maine was once a major center for textiles and shoe-making and the loss of these industries is still felt in many areas. Wal-Mart has refused to join the Clean Clothes partnership, a program in the city of Bangor that encourages retailers to evaluate the conditions under products were made and consider non-sweatshop alternatives.
Citizens opposed to Wal-Mart’s expansion plans won their first two victories in April. Town Selectmen in Wells voted 3-2 to deny a developer’s request to rezone land for a retail project that included a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s home improvement store. That same month, strong opposition from residents led Wal-Mart to drop plans for a 186,000 square foot store in Rockland. The new supercenter would have been located across the street from an existing Wal-Mart, leaving the original store vacant.
In Belfast, the City Council responded to Wal-Mart’s proposal to build a giant store in a residential area by enacting a six-month building moratorium in August. The measure halts construction of stores larger than 25,000 square feet, giving the community time to consider the impacts of large-scale development and to revise its land use laws accordingly. Many are calling for a permanent ban on large stores.
In Ellsworth, a group known as Citizens Organized for Responsible Development (CORD) is fighting Wal-Mart’s plans to open a 200,000 square foot supercenter to replace its existing 94,000 square foot store. CORD joined with the Downtown Business Association (DBA) in backing a six-month building moratorium and urging the town to revise its zoning code. The City Council rejected the moratorium, but opponents will continue the fight. Wal-Mart has not yet submitted a completed application to the city.
In Bangor, another citizens organization, the Bangor Area Citizens Organized for Responsible Development, has formed to oppose Wal-Mart’s plans to build a 224,000 square foot supercenter. The five-acre development would disturb a sensitive wetland area, home to 180 species of birds, 17 of which are endangered. The new store would mean the closure of an existing Wal-Mart store. The Planning Board is scheduled to consider the project in mid-November.
In Topsham, citizens opposed to a 361,000 square foot retail development, including a 205,000 square foot Wal-Mart and at least one other big box store, felt they were not getting an adequate hearing from elected officials and took matters into their own hands. The Topsham Citizens for Sensible Growth gathered enough signatures to place a referendum on the November 7 ballot to restrict new stores to no more than 90,000 square feet.
“Most of us in Maine enjoy a quiet kind of life,” resident Jane Scease, who is running for a seat in the state legislature, told the Portland Press Herald. “We want to manage the way [development] happens. We the voters have the sovereign authority. We alone.”