by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t starts with an empty lot, just sitting there, ripe for development. A couple of bulldozers show up and move some dirt around. Neighbors speculate on what's coming. A Target? More apartments? Then one day a sign goes up, noting a public hearing on a plan, and finally the name is made public: Wal-Mart. Some neighbors relish the low prices to come; others brace for a fight.

The drama starts this way in city after city, all across the United States and now even in Europe and Asia. Here in Spokane, on South Regal Street and 44th Avenue, the plan went public last week. Already Wal-Mart is holding its first public meeting, tonight (Jan. 26) at 6 pm at Ferris. And already concerned neighbors are talking about what they can do to oppose the plan, which calls for the construction of a 186,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter ("Supercenter" meaning it sells groceries along with every other consumer good imaginable) on the 7.6-acre parcel just inside the city limits.

"People are really alarmed at the prospect of a regional-type project going into a space designated as community retail," says Susan Brudnicki, a Moran Prairie activist who worked for former Mayor John Powers. Brudnicki adds that the project doesn't seem to fit because of the limited capacity of Regal, because of its proximity to housing and because the site, she claims, is a recognized wetland area.

These are many of the same issues Wal-Mart faces routinely. Company officials have certainly anticipated such objections and will have the project in as good a shape as possible going into the public phase -- they wouldn't be able to plan to build 260 Supercenters in the United States any other way.

"This is really the first step in the process, to talk about what the neighbors concerns are as it applies to the traffic so we can come up with solutions," says Eric Berger, Wal-Mart's spokesman for the Regal project. "We want to be very attentive to the local community's concerns to create a development everyone can be proud of."

Berger says Wal-Mart is already proud of the design they have come up with for the site: "We're no longer building just blue-and-gray boxes. We're presenting stores that are unique in architectural design and are responsive to the desires of the community."

Still, the two levels and rooftop parking may be more a function of the relatively small site; a Supercenter needs a lot of spaces for parking, which means more traffic, too.

"I'm sure that traffic is going to be the big issue," says Steve Haynes, the Spokane city planner assigned to the project. "But as far as I'm concerned, the wetland is out of the picture. But high groundwater is a question, and the site still has to be able to pass stormwater [requirements].

"The zoning is there," Haynes continues, "so all they would have to do is just apply for building permits. It's not like a land-use fight."

But if the experience of city after city -- including Hayden and Pullman -- is any indication, it's going to be exactly like a land-use fight.

The Case Against Wal-Mart & r & Although hard to prove, it appears that Wal-Mart has become the largest and perhaps most powerful corporation in the history of civilization.As a result, libraries could be filled with the books written about the alleged evils of Wal-Mart, yet the company continues to grow and grow. Specifically, Wal-Mart officials have been criticized for how they treat undocumented workers, for how they fund health insurance for their employees, for how they price goods and compete with existing home-grown stores, for how they hold their suppliers overseas responsible for the treatment of workers.... The company denies many of these charges, says Berger, pointing to their Web site, but the list goes on.

"Unfortunately, there are those who base their opposition on a lot of misinformation that's out there about the impact of our stores and the treatment of our associates," Berger says. "The story is that we bring significant savings to our consumers -- families can save $2,000 a year by shopping in our store." Berger adds that the Regal Supercenter should create 300 jobs, along with another 200 construction jobs while the store is being built.

Whether citizens' concerns are over the state of American business in general or over the practices of Wal-Mart in particular, the basic critique is that capitalism should have a conscience -- that there are limits to how a business should operate. If you agree with that, it becomes a question of where those boundaries are to be drawn. That's the question being answered on a case-by-case basis across the country as the Wal-Mart wars are waged.

State legislatures are even starting to get into the act, as Maryland recently passed a law (even overriding the governor's veto) forcing companies who don't contribute to their employees' health insurance to contribute to the state funds like Medicaid that pay health care costs for working people without insurance. At least 10 other states are considering the legislation, and just this week, the Seattle Times reported that the state of Washington believes 3,100 Wal-Mart employees have been getting their health care costs paid by the state -- double the number of the next-highest corporation the state examined.

"Wal-Mart isn't building this store for people on Main Street; it's building it for investors on Wall Street," says Al Norman, who has helped countless communities oppose Wal-Mart via his Web site, Norman started by successfully defeating a planned Wal-Mart in his Massachusetts town back in the early 1990s. Norman says Wal-Mart must grow to keep its stock price high, even if that means adding stores next to other Wal-Marts. (The proposed stores in Pullman and Hayden are less than 10 miles away from existing stores.)

Norman cites recent research that has confirmed his suspicions: For every Supercenter that opens, two nearby grocery stores will close; and a typical Supercenter can generate 7,000 additional car trips per day. But Norman cites other statistics, too: Of the 260 Supercenters Wal-Mart plans to build in fiscal 2006, Norman says probably 85 will be challenged, with half of those never to be built.

Hayden and Pullman & r & While the South Regal Wal-Mart has just been announced, citizen groups in both Hayden and Pullman remain locked in their own struggles with Wal-Mart.

After more than four years, the Wal-Mart plan for the intersection of Honeysuckle and Highway 95 in Hayden was under discussion again earlier this week. The local group Hayden First! continues to ask the state of Idaho and the city of Hayden to require better traffic solutions for the intersection that is already rated as an "F," says Judy Meyer, a member of Hayden First! along with her husband Steve and 88-year-old father John.

"There's a lot of emotion involved," says Meyer. "Many of us have lived elsewhere; this is a genuine effort to say we want to look at the long range, what's best for northern Idaho. We don't have to go very far, only to Seattle, to realize we have an opportunity to make a wise long-term decision -- which includes free enterprise."

Meyer says Hayden First! isn't necessarily opposed to Wal-Mart, just that location. They prefer a spot farther up Highway 95, where traffic isn't quite so nasty.

Down in Pullman, this week marked the third meeting to gather public testimony on the proposal for a 225,000-square-foot Supercenter. The Pullman Alliance for Responsible Development (PARD) had called for an independent economic study to verify Wal-Mart's claims of positive economic impact on Pullman. Last week, Wal-Mart offered its own economic impact study, but PARD continues to call for the study, with their key word being "independent."

PARD member Christopher Lupke, a professor at WSU, says the fight has become ugly: "It's convulsing the town. Some people are saying we should be run out of the community, that we're communists and un-American. It's shocking. I've never lived in a city where there was less opportunity to speak in a public manner about a project this big.

"We're critical of Wal-Mart, but we have tried to be ethical in the way we express our opposition," Lupke adds. "In the long run, we can change Pullman, but this is coming on very, very fast."

Where To Start & r & The common thread between Pullman, Hayden and South Regal is that all parties have been told, to one degree or another, that the deal is nearly done and there's nothing that can stop it. But that didn't stop citizen groups from forming, and Brudnicki says there are plenty of people upset to power some kind of effort.

Norman has seen the stages of Wal-Mart grief before, and he says that whatever group forms, to be effective it will need to hire a land-use attorney, and perhaps experts in traffic and hydrology. It will also need to raise money to pay those experts. And finally it will need to create visibility in the media and gather support from political leaders.

But that could be tricky. The City of Spokane is desperate for new tax base, and a Wal-Mart Supercenter should be a big tax generator. But wait, say people like Norman, is that additional tax base or just a reshuffling of the existing tax base? Not all public officials, elected or otherwise, are tuned in to such arguments.

"Most public officials are still without a clue," says Norman. "They still see Wal-Mart as economic development. They confuse a new building with progress. That may be true with office and industrial, but with retail, we're talking about a game of musical chairs."

So the deck appears to be stacked in favor of the project. That didn't stop the people in Gig Harbor, Wash.; Hailey, Idaho; and Escondido, Calif. -- all cities that have successfully fought off new Wal-Marts.

"People have to decide how strongly they feel about it," says Lupke of PARD. "And if they feel strongly about it, you fight them. And only by fighting them will they ever change."

The public meeting on the planned Wal-Mart Supercenter is tonight, Thursday, Jan. 26, at 6 pm at the Ferris High School auditorium, 3020 E. 37th Ave.

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

June 14-20
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