Saturday, January 3, 2004

Supercenter plan stirs Milford mom-and-pops



By Marie McCain and Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Kim Bush, owner of Main Street Books & Scraps in old Milford, is one of the mom-and-pop stores opposed to a Wal-Mart supercenter proposed nearby.
(Gary Landers photo)
MILFORD - The stone-and-glass facade of Main Street Books & Scraps in downtown Milford exudes the hope of a new small business.

Weeks after it opened, the bookstore along the city's historic shopping district still sports a "Grand Opening" banner. Yet it is the other sign in the front window that is more telling: "Stop Wal-Mart."

News that the discount retail giant wants to put one of its large, all-kinds-of-merchandise "supercenters" here has brought a national debate into sharp focus for those in this Clermont County city.

Many residents worry their quality of life will be hurt by the influx of traffic. Some downtown Milford small-business owners fear for their futures. Other residents, though, welcome the promise of low prices, variety and convenience.

A similar dilemma is bubbling in Deerfield Township, another supercenter site.

In all, the Arkansas-based company is planning at least six of its supercenter stores in Greater Cincinnati. Besides Milford and Deerfield, stores are planned in Lebanon, Union Township in Clermont County, West Chester Township and Fort Wright.

The local opposition is nothing new to Wal-Mart officials. Across the country, some residents and smaller merchants have fought the expansion of these supercenters, which have proven wildly popular with consumers looking for affordability and variety under one roof.

The larger Wal-Mart stores already exist in Dry Ridge and Aurora.

In Milford, entrepreneur Kim Bush, who owns Main Street Books & Scraps with her husband, Kevin, says the pitfalls of owning a small business in an uncertain economy are scary enough without the direct competition of a Wal-Mart.

"When I saw the storefront, I just thought 'bookstore' - something Milford needs - a small, neighborhood bookstore," she says. "We live here. We love the quaintness of this town. We want to stay here."

Still, residents such as Patti Holshouser predict a supercenter is a greater boon than a threat.

"Wal-Mart does not put anyone out of business. The consumer does, by the choices they make on where to spend their money," Holshouser wrote to Milford officials.

But for those who oppose the store, the issue goes well beyond mere competition.

"I have chosen to live in Milford because I believe in community," says Robyn Ciambro, owner of Connect, a printing and direct mail company about a block from Bush's bookstore.

"I chose Old Milford for my business because it offers a lot of charm. Downtown Milford is a beautiful slice of Americana. The possibility of Wal-Mart opening on Ohio 28 threatens the essence of (that) Old World charm."

Wal-Mart: good neighbors

Supercenters sell groceries and general merchandise - such as clothing, household items and hardware. They also offer other amenities: auto repair, garden centers, vision centers, and nail and hair salons. The concept has been in existence since 1988, and it's proven to be an important piece in Wal-Mart's expansion strategy for the past 15 years.

They are twice as big as Wal-Mart's regular stores, which generally are less than 125,000 square feet. They also employ about 400 people - more than half full-time.

Opponents say one-stop mega-stores devastate local economies by duplicating existing services at cut-rate prices.

Wal-Mart officials disagree. They contend these areas can support additional retail and direct competition. Wal-Mart, they say, helps to improve local economies by creating jobs and expanding tax bases.

"We are listening to those (concerns)," said John Bisio, Wal-Mart's regional community affairs director. "That is not lost on us."

Wal-Mart makes every effort to be a good neighbor, he says.

In 2002, its employees helped raise and contribute $200 million to charitable organizations. It also doled out $77 million in community grants to help such agencies as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Bisio said Wal-Mart also works with local authorities to ease traffic concerns and ensure that its stores' physical designs do not contrast with neighborhood architectural and aesthetic standards.

That's not been enough to ease the worries of some in Milford. Supercenter foes are turning to two books - How Wal-Mart is Destroying America (and the World) by Bill Quinn and Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart! How You Can Stop Superstore Sprawl in Your Hometown by Al Norman - for strategic tips.

These books, which have set the tone for opposition campaigns across the country, portray the supercenters' effect on local economies in a negative light.

'Retail hurricane'

Norman, author of Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart!, says the mega-store can be compared to a "retail hurricane."

"People have said to me: 'When Wal-Mart arrives, they hit the town with the force of 100 new businesses opening at once.' ... The real truth about Wal-Mart ... is that they represent a form of economic displacement, not economic development," Norman writes.

In the mid-1990s, a supercenter was built in Dry Ridge. The store replaced a smaller Wal-Mart and moved closer to Interstate 75.

Almost immediately, a local farmers market near the old Wal-Mart saw a sharp drop in business.

"When the Wal-Mart moved, so did about 75 percent of the customers for the farmers market," said Dennis Hancock, of Grant County's agricultural extension office, in a 2001 interview.

The farmers market has since relocated to a nearby outlet mall, which has helped to revitalize the area in recent years, residents say.

Other local markets also felt the pinch. A small IGA grocery and a neighborhood food store/gas station soon closed, while a Food Lion has remained open. Residents wonder how long it will last, though. The supercenter not only has lower prices, it honors Food Lion's coupons.

"Companies like Wal-Mart have cannibalized the retail food chain from the mom-and-pops on the bottom, to the mid-level regional chains, to the very top national chains," Norman says in his book.

Wal-Mart stands by what it says is a record of positive impacts.

"I think we have the benefit of the truth on our side," Bisio said.

Resounding opposition

Milford's downtown business district has taken 20 years to revitalize, residents say. Some have formed an action group, retained an attorney, and started a Web site - www.geocities.com/swim45150 - to fight the proposed supercenter.

SWIM (Stop Wal-Mart In Milford) hopes to persuade zoning officials to reject the company's request to rezone 37 acres along Ohio 28 near Interstate 275 during a Jan. 14 meeting.

If approved, the plan could displace residents in a mobile home park that sits on the site. City officials are also concerned because the location has a history of storm-water and sanitary sewer problems.

Assistant City Manager Jeff Wright says Milford is objectively analyzing the request. Like residents, the city "has concerns about traffic, utilities, storm-water facilities, and whether this business would fit into Milford's land use plan."

In nearby Warren County, many Deerfield Township residents understand Milford's debate.

For months, opposition groups have urged leaders to reject a planned supercenter along one of Warren's most-traveled roads.

Comprised of residents in nearby subdivisions, the groups have started e-mail discussion groups and passed out fliers. And when Wal-Mart is on a township or county meeting agenda, members show up en masse.

"I never requested this store. I never went into Wal-Mart and said, 'Why don't you sell groceries?'" says Kathy Youngquist, of Deerfield Township. "We have five grocery stores now within a two-mile radius."

The proposed 203,000-square-foot supercenter, to be built along Mason-Montgomery Road between a new Kroger and an outdoor retail development, would be a relocation of a smaller Wal-Mart.

Zoning commission members will discuss the plan at its Jan. 12 meeting.

Residents divided

In Milford, those who support the Wal-Mart store urge city leaders to focus on the convenience and variety a supercenter will offer, in addition to more jobs and a larger tax base.

Brenda J. Wilson, of Miami Township, patronizes Milford's downtown shopping district. But in a letter to Milford leaders, she says she supports a Wal-Mart.

"I buy my gym shoes from the Running Spot. I think they provide a wonderful service that cannot be found at Wal-Mart. However, the beauty of competition is that it forces business to provide better service or products, thus enhancing the consumer's marketplace," she writes.

Even within the opposition groups, there is division.

Some say they don't want a mega-discount retailer in their area, while others don't like the location and suggest it would fit well in an existing retail center along Milford Parkway. But that won't work, say officials, because a different developer owns that site.

For Michael Matthews, a Milford resident who runs an environmental consulting firm, fighting Wal-Mart is not about hindering progress.

Ultimately, it is a matter of determining progress.

"This is our town," he says. The developers "don't live here and don't appreciate what we do. We don't have to succumb to 'progress.' We determine what we want, and bigger is not necessarily better."

E-mail mmccain@enquirer.com and esolvig@enquirer.com




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