BOSTON — Fearful that new Wal-Mart supercenters would spoil Vermont’s bucolic character, the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed the Green Mountain State as one of America’s top 11 “most endangered” historic places.
Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, who nominated the state for the national endangered list, said the world’s largest retailer is planning seven stores of 150,000 to 175,000 square feet each in St. Albans, Morrisville, Newport/Derby, St. Johnsbury, Bennington, Rutland and Middlebury.
Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., already operates four stores in Vermont, which is its lowest representation in any U.S. state, and they are among the retailer’s smallest domestic stores, at 70,000 to 115,000 square feet.
The move comes as Wal-Mart is embroiled in legislative and legal battles over California supercenters and also faces increased scrutiny in Chicago, where the company is trying to open its first stores — a vote by the Board of Alderman is scheduled for Wednesday. Opponents, including those who succeeded in defeating a plan for a Wal-Mart in Inglewood, Calif., have argued that the company pays low salaries and its big-box stores hurt small local businesses, as well as having a detrimental effect on the environment.
“Back in the Nineties, we worked very closely with Wal-Mart to help build a 70,000-square-foot store in downtown Rutland,” Bruhn said. “We still believe it’s a terrific solution because scale is an important issue. We have a very healthy balance of national chains and locally owned businesses. It’s a tricky balance to maintain, but an important one.”
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mia Masten would only confirm plans to build a store — not a supercenter — in St. Albans in a designated growth corridor. The proposed 150,000-square-foot unit would create about 300 jobs and may open as soon as winter 2005 if the required approvals proceed smoothly. Masten said the retailer “will consider” other stores in Vermont, but did not provide a time frame.
Bruhn, citing conversations with local town planners and elected officials, added that some of the new Vermont stores would sell groceries, as well.
In 1993, Vermont was the last state to get a Wal-Mart, a move fought by opponents who cited everything from sprawl-related environmental impact to loss of jobs and retail diversity that could threaten historic town centers.
There are signs some of the state’s communities are again girding for battle. Bennington town planner Daniel Monks said a local select board in April approved an interim zoning bylaw that would prohibit new stores of more than 75,000 square feet from opening for as long as two years. The planning commission is working on “making some cap to permanently deal with big-box retail,” he said.
“As much as people complain about Wal-Mart being here, you would not know it by looking at the parking lot,” said Lanea Tripp, 29, a stay-at-home mother who shops at the Wal-Mart in Rutland. “It is always packed.”