by Pia K. Hansen

It's a little more than one year ago that a handful of Hayden residents started the grassroots group Hayden First! What spurred their organization was the announcement that the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, was planning to build a 223,000-square-foot, 24-hour-a-day operation at the intersection of Honeysuckle Avenue and Highway 95.

Yet in order for Wal-Mart -- or any other retail giant -- to build anything on that specific site, zoning had to be changed on portions of the 37 acres. Public hearings were held. What happened surprised even the Hayden First! organizers: more than 500 people showed up at Hayden Meadows Elementary School to learn about the plans. Most of the people at the hearings did not support the Wal-Mart plans. From then on, the battle raged.

Today it appears as if the residents of Hayden have won.

"The project is absolutely nowhere," says Lisa Key, community planner with the city of Hayden. "The last submission they made was denied. That puts the ball in their court. Wal-Mart can't move forward with anything. If they want to do that, they have to submit a new proposal, we have to hold new hearings and go through due process one more time."

Does that mean Wal-Mart has given up?

Key says CLC Associates, the company that's requesting the zoning change on behalf of the landowner and ultimately Wal-Mart, is attending most of the city council meetings and planning commission meetings.

"I wouldn't say it's a dead issue just yet," she says.

Mary Jacobsen agrees. She's the spokeswoman for Hayden First!, and she says the group has no intentions of declaring victory. "I don't think Wal-Mart has given up yet. That would be too good to be true," says Jacobsen. "We stay in touch with each other, and I try to contact the city on a weekly basis just to make sure there is nothing new going on. Hayden First! is still here, but on hold."

The city of Hayden's comprehensive plan is currently up for review, making it possible to change zoning and land-use designations in this small North Idaho community -- including at the site where Wal-Mart would like to build.

"We are attending all the public hearings about the comprehensive plan, and we are trying our best to stay vigilant," says Jacobsen. "We feel like we can't just raise a lot of hell and then go away."

Wal-Mart currently operates four stores in the Spokane area, one in Post Falls and one in Sandpoint.

As of Aug. 31, the retailer was operating 1,494 regular stores (down from 1,651 in 2001), 1,386 Supercenters (up from 1,026), 532 Sam's Clubs (up from 486) and 56 Neighborhood Markets (up from 26) across the nation -- not to mention its 1,309 stores in other countries.

According to Wal-Mart's Web site, the company plans to open approximately 50 new discount stores and 220 new Supercenters during the fiscal year that begins on Feb. 1, 2004. Approximately 140 of the Supercenters will be expansions of existing discount stores, with the remainder being built in new locations.

It's anyone's best guess if any of the new stores will end up in Hayden. Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amy Hill didn't return phone calls asking for a project update.

In November of last year, members of Hayden First! made it very clear that most of them weren't opposed to Wal-Mart as such. They said their main concerns were the increase in traffic a 24-hour store would bring to Highway 95 and the surrounding neighborhoods, and the fact that Hayden wouldn't benefit nearly as much from any tax revenues generated at the store, as the state of Idaho would.

Today, Jacobsen still says the increase in traffic is the biggest concern, but she has also learned more about Wal-Mart and the negative impact big retailers can have on smaller communities.

"I don't like what I've learned. We still don't think Hayden is the right place for this store," she says. "This is a city of 10,000, and we want businesses here that serve our town, not the entire region. But it's not just about location anymore." She says she worries having a Wal-Mart in Post Falls, one in Sandpoint and possibly one in Hayden will knock out local businesses. That's exactly the opposite of what Hayden currently is trying to do.

"Here in Hayden, we want our business district along Government Way to be revitalized -- well, actually, we want it to start developing, is more like it. There is not a whole lot going on there right now," says Jacobsen. "There are now some funds on the way for 2005 and 2006 that will make it possible for us to work on developing that downtown business area. A one-stop big box retailer like Wal-Mart, located outside of the business district, will take away retail from the downtown we really want to see grow."

Does she think Wal-Mart has given up on Hayden?

Jacobsen laughs: "Nah. No, we don't think it's a dead issue yet. I guess we'll just have to wait and see."

Publication date: 11/27/03

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