Debbie Brinkman didn’t plan on being an anti-Wal-Mart activist. In fact, as a Republican, she felt it was “kind of against my politics to be fighting this.”
But when the Littleton, Colo., resident heard there were plans to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter across from a large and popular park — and within sight of her own front door — she felt she had little choice but to get involved. So Brinkman became one of the early members of Littleton Against Wal-Mart, fighting a store planned for the Denver suburb.
Her story isn’t unusual. Across the country, dozens of community efforts are emerging to block new Wal-Mart development, provoking drawn-out battles that have proven costly and time-consuming for the world's largest retailer and occasionally hindered its expansion plans.
But in some communities, the campaigns are also provoking internal squabbles, with community members divided over whether to welcome or spurn the big-box developments.
The reasons behind the efforts vary widely. Some activists, like Brinkman, say they don’t oppose Wal-Mart in general — they just don’t think Wal-Mart belongs in that particular spot in their community. Others, like Carole Heerman of Woodland, Wash., worry that a Wal-Mart will hurt the town’s other businesses, including her own. Still others, like Michael Funke of Bend, Ore., oppose Wal-Mart because they think its workers should get better wages and benefits.
Experts say the groups are having an impact. Retail analyst C. Britt Beemer said it may be only a few percent of people who boycott because of the negative publicity, but that could still be meaningful for a company beginning to struggle with potential limits to its domestic growth.
By one closely watched measure, same-store sales, Wal-Mart's U.S. growth was anemic last year. Sales at U.S. Wal-Mart stores open at least a year rose a meager 1.9 percent in the company’s latest fiscal year.
That’s not to mention the delays, added legal fees and other obstacles that come when Wal-Mart faces opposition to its development plans — even if the company ultimately succeeds in building the store.
“I’m sure these issues have hurt them all financially,” Beemer said. “In the last few years, it’s gotten to be a bloody mess out there.”
In fact, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company often does succeed in opening its doors despite community outcry. But opponents also have prevailed in efforts to hinder Wal-Mart development in some cities, such as the California communities of Long Beach, San Diego and Turlock, and areas in Florida.
In early March, city council members in Concord, Calif., turned down a project to build a Wal-Mart and other stores in a largely industrial area, citing traffic and environmental concerns. Kevin Loscotoff, Wal-Mart’s senior manager for public affairs in California, said the company is evaluating what to do next. A spokeswoman for the group that opposes the store, Allie Gramm, said she expects the fight to continue.
Company officials in both California and Florida insist the setbacks haven’t hindered the company’s overall growth plans in those states and say they continue to look for ways to draw shoppers from areas where they’ve had trouble building new stores.
In many cases, the battles can drag on for months or even years, proving costly and time-consuming for the opponents as well.
In Bend, Wal-Mart was denied an initial application for a Supercenter and lost subsequent appeals, but opponents expect the fight to continue. Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jennifer Holder said the company plans to submit a new application.
In Littleton, the city council narrowly approved Wal-Mart’s plans, but opponents are gathering signatures for a proposed referendum that would require the council to change its decision or leave it up to voters.
Gray McGinnis, Wal-Mart’s director of public affairs for the mountain region, said the company plans to rally its supporters to turn out in favor of the Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart officials paint many of the battles as representing niche groups with specific agendas, such as those fighting to unionize Wal-Mart workers or get the company to pay its workers more and offer better benefits.
Some community organizers have accepted money from union labor groups and other anti-Wal-Mart interests, such as grocers who stand to lose business from Wal-Mart competition. Still, many communities also say they received substantial backing from individual members of their communities, and note that individual citizens have devoted hours of volunteer time to the cause.
In Littleton, for example, Brinkman said the group received money from a local food workers union but also did plenty of independent fund-raising.
“There’s not one of us that hasn’t written a substantial amount of personal checks to cover the cost of this fight,” she said.
She insists the community group is concerned about local impact, not someone else's national agenda.
Gramm, who helped oppose Wal-Mart in Concord, Calif., said many volunteers stayed up late into the night for a city council meeting, only to get up early the next morning to commute to their jobs.
"People thought that we were paid people who do this, and we’re not," she said.
However, there are some larger organizations that have had a hand in many Wal-Mart disputes. Those include ACORN, which represents low- and middle-income families and was involved in a failed Chicago effort. The Florida-based activist group WARN, which is a coalition of labor unions, environmentalists and others, said it is or has been involved in 26 Wal-Mart disputes.
In many towns, anti-Wal-Mart groups hasten to point out that they aren’t necessarily against development, or even other chain stores. Some Wal-Mart opponents say they regularly shop at its main competitor, Target. Others favor wholesale club operator Costco, which is known for paying above-average retail wages. Both cater to a higher-end clientele.
“Costco has been an example for us of what we would like Wal-Mart to do,” said Funke, of Bend.
Regardless of the ideology behind the fight, the actual dispute often comes down to whether the project will create untenable traffic concerns, increase police expenses or cause environmental harm — areas where experts say they often see the best practical chance of fighting Wal-Mart development.
“Wherever it’s a problem getting them to be accountable around corporate citizenship in the community, we’ll look for whatever handles are available,” said Wade Rathke, chief organizer for ACORN, which says its primary goal is to work for things like higher wages.
Funke, a longtime labor organizer who helped lead the charge in Bend, said he personally opposes Wal-Mart for ideological reasons but insists he wouldn’t have taken on the retailer’s development effort if he hadn’t seen a groundswell of community support. When 150 people showed up for a meeting, he felt he could fight for what he believes in and also respect the town’s wishes.
Still, Funke said he quickly dropped efforts in neighboring Redmond, Ore., after sensing there was little broad opposition to a planned Wal-Mart there. A Wal-Mart Supercenter is currently under construction.
Other organizers have started tweaking their approach based on community response.
WARN, which stands for WalMart Alliance for Reform Now, counts victories including a Wal-Mart site in St. Petersburg, Fla., in which the company eventually withdrew its plans.
But at another site in Sarasota, Fla., Rick Smith, Florida director for WARN, said his group is working with community members who want the bargains a Wal-Mart will bring. In that case, Smith said the group is pushing for Wal-Mart to provide things like better wages.
Eric Brewer, director of public affairs for Wal-Mart’s southeast operations, says the company withdrew from the St. Petersburg site because it couldn’t resolve traffic concerns.
“WARN’s involvement, while eye-catching, wasn’t the basis for our withdrawal of that application,” he said.
Brewer said citizens do have legitimate concerns when a Wal-Mart comes to town, such as how it will look and how traffic will be affected. But he accuses WARN of “just out-and-out attack using full-time campaigners,” instead of truly trying to meet a community’s needs.
Still, Brewer concedes that efforts by WARN and others have proved time-consuming and costly for the company’s Florida operations.
“We have certainly hit our targets of growth, but we have had to match their efforts (with) our own,” he said.
In some communities, citizens have been divided over whether to welcome or spurn Wal-Mart.
When a developer purchased a closed-down Kmart building in coastal Marina, Calif., many local residents expected the property would be used for a cluster of shops meant to appeal to tourists and visitors. Some were outraged when the developers disclosed that they had struck a deal with Wal-Mart.
“Visitors come to Marina for the natural beauty and the outdoor recreation opportunities. They don’t come to Marina to shop at Wal-Mart,” said Steve Zmak of Citizens Against Wal-Mart in Marina.
Still, Zmak said that his group faced opposition from others locals who remembered when the town was much worse-off financially and felt they should welcome any development. Some older residents on fixed incomes were eager for the bargains.
“We found that there’s sort of a division in Marina,” Zmak said.
In the end, the city approved the Wal-Mart, and it opened in November. Zmak has now turned his attention to trying to prevent Wal-Mart from expanding to a larger Supercenter.
Similarly, in the small town of Woodland, Wash., opponents argue that a proposed Supercenter on the north end of town will snarl traffic in an already congested area, potentially backing up access to a nearby industrial district. A traffic mess could prove devastating to a local trucking business and manufacturing operations that rely on easy highway access.
“I don’t know why you should trade one business for another,” Darlene Johnson, president of Woodland Truck Line Inc., said at a daylong public meeting this year about the proposed Wal-Mart.
Opponents in Woodland also say the Wal-Mart will hurt longstanding efforts to revitalize the small downtown, and worry that the combination of big trucks and Wal-Mart traffic will prove dangerous when a proposed high school is built nearby.
But others complained that they currently have to drive as far as 20 miles to get things like kids’ sports uniforms, and said their cash-strapped families could use the bargain prices.
“Why not let Wal-Mart come in, and those who don’t want to shop there can go somewhere else that they like?” resident Shirley James asked.
Holder, the Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the company has operated Wal-Marts near schools elsewhere in the country, and argued the benefits Wal-Mart would bring to Woodland would outweigh any potential harm to direct competitors.
A decision on Wal-Mart’s Woodland plans is expected later this month.