Wal-Mart Money Trumps Land Use Process in Bennington, Vermont

Date: 7 Apr 2005 | posted in: Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

4/19/05 UPDATE—Disclosure documents released today show that Wal-Mart and the developer spent $69,500 to overturn this ordinance, or about $32 per vote, while the citizens group supporting the measure had just $6,280 to spend on their campaign.

Wal-Mart and an Ohio developer spent heavily and attacked opponents as wealthy elites in a successful campaign to overturn a new law governing large-scale retail stores in the town of Bennington, Vermont.

The local ordinance capped retail stores at 75,000 square feet (about one-and-a-half football fields) and required proposals for stores over 30,000 square to pass a community impact review. It was enacted unanimously by the town’s select board in January after three years of extensive review, public meetings and deliberations.

Wal-Mart has a 50,000-square-foot store in Bennington and wants to abandon that store to build a 112,000-square-foot supercenter about a mile away. While the ordinance would have prohibited a store of that size, it did allow Wal-Mart to expand its existing store by fifty percent.

Neither Wal-Mart nor its Ohio-based developer, Jonathan Levy, participated in any of the public deliberations regarding the ordinance.

Shortly after it passed, Wal-Mart and the developer hired a team of people to gather enough signatures to force a referendum on the law.

Then they spent thousands of dollars on a blitz of radio spots, full-page newspaper ads, lawn signs, multiple mass mailings, and a push poll. The “poll” asked people to agree or disagree with statements such as, “I think the town of Bennington should be encouraging growth instead of passing laws which force businesses to go elsewhere,” “I am in favor of Wal-Mart because they have contributed at least $1,000 a year to the Bennington community,” and “I am in favor of Wal-Mart because they offer low-cost products which benefit senior citizens and residents with low incomes.”

Throughout the campaign, Wal-Mart and its supporters sought to portray those in favor of the law as rich elites, derisively referring to them in newspaper articles as “doctors’ wives and all those trustee people.”

But, of course, Wal-Mart was the real deep-pocketed player in this fight. As of March 24, almost two weeks before the vote, Wal-Mart’s developer had spent three times as much as the Citizens for a Greater Bennington, a group of local volunteers who came together to support the law. The final spending tally is likely to be even more lopsided, because the developer spent heavily in the days leading up to the vote.

On April 5, voters overturned the law by 2,189 to 1,724. Only about 40 percent of the town’s registered voters participated.

“People have been really upset about the power of big money,” said Meg Campbell, one of the lead organizers for Citizens for a Greater Bennington.

The group argued that, in a small town like Bennington (the population of greater Bennington is about 16,000), a size cap was essential to maintaining competition by preventing one large store from dominating the local market. They also said the measure would protect existing jobs and save the city from the high cost of providing infrastructure and services to sprawling big-box stores.

The vote will likely lead state lawmakers to drop or revise legislation that would have required all Vermont towns to adopt size limits and community impact standards.

Despite the vote, Wal-Mart still has several major hurdles to clear before it can proceed with a new store, including significant local traffic issues and a regional review under the state’s Act 250 process.

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Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which produces research and designs policy to counter concentrated corporate power and strengthen local economies.