Hundreds of citizens packed a Town Council meeting in Taos, New Mexico, in late January to voice their opposition to a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter.
With the meeting room filled to capacity, many were forced to sit out the proceedings in other rooms, hallways, and even outside the building. More than 70 people testified against the development over a three-and-a-half hour period. Opponents wore green ribbons to identify themselves and presented a petition with 6,800 signatures. Small business owners held up green signs with the names of their stores and the number of people they employ.
Wal-Mart already has a 70,000-square-foot store in this historic mountain town. The company wants to build a 180,000-square-foot supercenter that would combine general merchandise with a full supermarket and numerous specialty items from cut flowers to eye glasses.
An earlier attempt by Wal-Mart to build a supercenter was defeated three years ago. Afterwards, the Taos Town Council adopted a zoning law that prohibits stores over 80,000 square feet, about twice as large as a football field but less than half the size of a supercenter.
But this fall, seemingly out of the blue, two residents presented the town manager with a petition containing 7,000 signatures in support of a Wal-Mart supercenter (the validity of at least one-quarter of the signatures has been called into question). Proponents took out large ads in The Taos News and have convinced the Town Council to reconsider the 80,000-square-foot limit.
The two men leading the campaign for Wal-Mart, Santiago Chavez and Ramon Trujillo, will not say who is funding the ads and paying their salaries. An out-of-state developer has optioned land on the edge of town presumably to build a shopping center anchored by Wal-Mart.
Proponents of the development have attempted to divide the community along ethnic lines, painting opponents as white newcomers who care little about unemployment among Hispanics.
The characterization has angered many Hispanic small business owners. More than 290 businesses employing 1,700 people have come out against the development. In December, the Hispano Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution opposing Wal-Mart.
Resident Arsenio Cordova contends that, at the very least, the Town Council needs to conduct a thorough economic impact study. He contacted several New Mexico communities–including Las Vegas, Trinidad, and Espanola—which all reported losing grocery stores and other locally owned businesses soon after supercenters opened.
Anther concern, according to Hilario Serrano, manager of Randall Lumber and Hardware, has to do with Wal-Mart’s wages. He says local businesses pay significantly more, especially the town’s three unionized grocery stores.