Greg Hertz is fully aware that by fighting a proposed 156,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Super Center in Polson, he has become part of a larger national movement. He hopes to use that fact to his advantage.
Although reluctant to admit it, Hertz is acknowledged by opponents and supporters both as spearheading Lake County First (LCF), a citizens group formed as a result of an Oct. 11 city/county planning board meeting, where Wal-Mart submitted its preliminary application for zone change, annexation and subdivision plat.
Nationwide, a growing chorus has accused Wal-Mart of bankrupting local businesses, sucking money out of communities and increasing states’ Medicare costs.
Hertz has paid attention to the Wal-Mart debate for years, because for him, the issue is personal. He is the majority shareholder in Moody’s Market Inc., which owns six grocery stores in the Lake County area, including Polson’s Super 1.
He has read a leaked memo from Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president of benefits, to the corporation’s board of directors, in which she writes that 46 percent of Wal-Mart workers’ children are on Medicaid or uninsured, and that employees who are hit by costly health problems “almost certainly end up declaring personal bankruptcy” due to the inadequacy of Wal-Mart’s healthcare coverage.
Hertz is also familiar with a report commissioned by Wal-Mart, released last week, which finds that while creating jobs and lowering prices, Wal-Mart also holds down employee pay and burdens state Medicare expenses by about $900 per Wal-Mart employee.
Hertz says LCF is currently organizing several showings of a new documentary film critical of Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart: The high cost of low price.
Hertz has studied the muckraking websites of Walmartwatch.com and Wakeupwalmart.com, two national groups supported by workers’ unions that act as information clearinghouses and rallying points for those opposed to Wal-Mart’s business practices.
And Hertz has prepared for his coming battle with Wal-Mart by reading Shameless, a downloadable handbook compiled by Wal-Mart Watch that details the various methods used by the corporation to gets its stores built in towns that resist them.
The handbook, while a bit overdramatic, offers well-documented examples of Wal-Mart’s tactics, including threats to pull the plug on traditional Wal-Mart stores if larger Super Centers are not allowed, sponsoring pro-Wal-Mart city council candidates in local elections, and in one case paying for ads that compared Wal-Mart opponents to Nazis and people who oppose freedom of religion.
Hertz and others active with LCF have also read a guide to fighting Wal-Mart on Wakeupwalmart.com, and they’ve been passing around a book by Al Norman titled Slam-dunking Wal-Mart.
Hertz says that all the resources providing “a roadmap,” providing information LCF can use to convince others to join the opposition, prepare them for what to expect from the corporation, and delineate anti-Wal-Mart stategies that work.
“We’re a grassroots effort,” Hertz says. “We all have jobs, and we don’t have this powerful public-relations arm backing us. So sure, we’re going to look at a lot of other communities that are doing this.”
The best way to block Wal-Mart, he has learned, is via specific planning and zoning issues.
“Cities really can’t react based on emotional issues,” Hertz says.
In order to build on the 27-acre site for which they’ve signed a buy/sell agreement in Polson, Wal-Mart must first convince the Polson City Council to annex the site and change its zoning from low-density residential to highway commercial. Hertz hopes to convince the City Council that neither the zone change nor annexation is warranted. The fight proper will start once Wal-Mart submits its formal application for annexation, zone change and subdivision plat to the council. (No timeline has been announced, though Wal-Mart has said it hopes to open in the summer of 2007). Employing another tool that has been used against Wal-Mart, Hertz had proposed an economic impact study to give the community an unbiased look at Wal-Mart’s potential impact. That idea was shot down by Polson’s City Council Monday, because nothing in the Polson Development Code requires it. But Hertz says that one of LCF’s goals is to eventually get provisions requiring economic impact studies for large-scale developments added to all the city development codes in Lake County.
In the meantime, both Hertz and Dave Tolley, manager of Polson’s existing 52,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, are making the case for their stores.
Hertz says that locally owned businesses like his put more of their profits into the community. To support his claim, Hertz says he banks locally and employs local attorneys and accountants. He also says that his 110 Polson-area employees earn an average wage of $10.60 per hour.
Tolley says his current store employs 139 people at an average wage of $9.59 per hour. A Super Center, he says, would employ about 200. Tolley also argues that a Super Center in Polson would give Lake County residents an opportunity to shop closer to home, rather than drive to Wal-Mart Super Centers in Missoula or Kalispell. Keeping shoppers close to home, he says, will benefit not only Wal-Mart, but downtown specialty stores as well.
Tolley says that Hertz’ opposition to Wal-Mart lies mainly in his fear of competition, and Hertz admits that a Super Center would be bad for his business.
Polson’s traditional Wal-Mart doesn’t compete directly with Hertz’ stores because it doesn’t sell groceries. Super Centers do.
Hertz says a county of 28,000 people can’t support his stores, an existing Safeway, and a Wal-Mart Super Center. At least one would have to go out of business, he says, and most likely it wouldn’t be Wal-Mart.
“Is there room for Wal-Mart and other grocery stores?” he asks rhetorically. “Absolutely.”
Which argument Polson will eventually buy could become one of the more interesting political battles of the year.