Writings and observations

Standoff at Chelan

Chelan downtown

Two weeks from Monday, another new Wal-Mart, this one in Chelan, Washington, was set to open. Was, until December 29, when a Washington district judge ruled that the business didn’t have a proper building permit. That might have seemed almost beside the point by then, since the building was already constructed – it was even being stocked with merchandise. But as matters stand, there’s a real chance it may not open at all.

It may be the first time a Wal-Mart store has actually been built, only to be stopped from opening. There is even a chance it will be torn down (which is more than a lot of empty Wal-Marts have been) – its critics say they will be seeking as much.

The basis for the stoppage sounds more picky than it is. The project started not a a Wal-Mart development (apparently at least) but as something called the Apple Blossom Center, for which the city signed off on a “planned development district” with specific terms. Those terms included a variety of commercial developments, with a maximum size limit of 50,000 square feet on any one. That limit, as the judge notes, was never changed by the city, which last fall stood by and watched Wal-Mart and its developer, Pacland, build a stand-issue 162,000-sqaure-foot Wal-Mart store.

“Here,” Judge Lesley Allan concluded, “this court is left with the definite and firm conviction that the city erred in granting the two permits at issue.” That meant the court voided the city’s building and grading permits.

Might they still be reissued? Maybe. But evidently, no one knows exactly what will happen next. Wal-Mart has not yet appealed Allan’s decision, but it probably will. That ruling, though, seems to us tightly and logically crafted; Wal-Mart may have a fight on its hands to overturn it.

Its legal arguments in the case, at least as summarized by the judge, sounded notably weak. Most of them center around the idea that the opposition is filing its protests too late. The response – you can hear a clear version of it on a KOZI radio interview taped and posted Thursday – is that local activists filed their response as soon as the building permit was granted, before any concrete was poured or any local people hired. (Scores have been hired, and some of them left stable jobs to hire on at Wal-Mart.) Part of their complaint: Wal-Mart persisted in grading, building, stocking and filling 200 jobs with local people even while their legal ability to build at all was in court. (A case of easier to get forgiveness than permission?)

bullet In September we toured through the Chelan country, from Wenatchee north to Omak, and took the side trip off Highway 2 to Chelan. As that suggests, it’s a fairly remote small town, about 3,600 people, about 40 minutes from Wenatchee to the south, the nearest substantial center. Omak and Okanogan are about as far away, to the north.) One activist compared Wal-Mart to a hunter who ventered onto no-hunting land, shot a deer, got caught, and then complained that he may as well keep it – the deer was dead already anyway.

It has a look of modest prosperity. The downtown’s store spaces are almost all full, and the businesses seemed a thriving group. They have a special advantage. Chelan’s location is spectacular, on the edge of Lake Chelan – look straight down the downtown main street and you’ll it end at the lake. That location has not gone unnoticed. Dozens of new houses, most McMansions, have been built or are planned overlooking the lake, most outside of town but not far from it. A lot of these are second homes, vacation homes, by Seattleites, some of whom have funded the anti-box effort. Chelan seems poised for resort-town development – if it can keep its still-charming downtown intact long enough.

Defenders of Small Town Chelan (and an earlier groups called the Lake Chelan Valley Citizens Alliance), the local opposition group, is focusing more on the zoning process, and suggesting rules for the future, such as a possible 40,000-square foot cap on store size. But it points out some of the impacts a Wal-Mart likely would have, impacts quite a few people seem not to have to worked through. A good Seattle Times overview today includes this quote from a Chelan gift shop owner (who almost certainly would be shuttering her doors two or three years after Wal-Mart’s opening): “Is it going to hurt us? Yes, it will, businesswise. If I didn’t think so, I’d be crazy. On the other hand, I think we could use a Wal-Mart.”

Wal-Mart at Omak
The new Wal-Mart at Omak, where the impact is starting to be felt in the Omak and Okanogan downtowns

Exactly why they could use it is harder to say, on examination. Jobs at the one new store would be offset by losses of dozens or scores of jobs at local business – and by the loss of the local businesses themselves. Money which once circulated around town from business to business, to civic groups and through networks of volunteers, would dry up in favor of a small occasional handout from the big buy. Considerable business-to-business commerce will dry up (megacorporations do not buy their services locally). Tax money from the new store would be offeset by the loss of tax money from an emptying-out downtown and commerce and jobs lost there, and the cost of expensive additional infrastructure supporting the new store. Probably few at Chelan understand the use of pricing signposts and blinds at Wal-Mart and other boxes; many probably think they’re getting better deals than they are. And so on.

Chelan will at least, now, have the opportunity to consider those kind of issues.

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