In 2001, after Wal-Mart optioned land on the outskirts of Belfast, Maine, a community of 6,500 in the fast-growing midcoast region, the city council adopted a temporary moratorium on large stores and placed an initiative permanently banning stores over 75,000 square feet on the ballot.
At first, the council was widely criticized for being "anti-growth." Informal polls suggested more than 60 percent of residents favored Wal-Mart.
But an extensive public education campaign by the grassroots group Belfast First turned the tide. "People learned a lot about our economy and about the predatory practices" of large retail chains, noted Mayor Michael Hurly. On election day, voters endorsed the size cap by a 2-to-1 margin.
Not long after, Ames, a regional department store chain with a 45,000-square-foot store in Belfast, folded and a group of citizens began to campaign for lifting the size cap in order to bring more shopping options to Belfast. They argued that general merchandise retailers would not build stores under 75,000 square feet (although Wal-Mart has several smaller stores in neighboring Vermont).
Belfast First, a citizens group that championed the size cap and fought the ballot initiative, contended that residents’ needs could be met by expanding local businesses. They noted that Reny’s, a Maine-owned chain of about a dozen discount stores, planned to replace its existing Belfast outlet with a much larger store of 32,000 square feet that will offer a broad range of household goods.
They also pointed out that a 150,000-square-foot store would consume fully one-quarter of retail sales in the county, undermining many existing small businesses and creating economic dislocation, not growth.
In November 2004, voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative to allow stores of up to 200,000 square feet on four lots on the north side of town. The final vote tally was 1,970 to 1,794. As of early 2009, however, no development had occurred on those lots.
- The city’s zoning code, which includes the size limit, can be accessed on the City of Belfast web site