Don't call it a big box bribe 

There's plenty of talk about the money big-box stores drain away from local businesses, so it's noteworthy when Wal-Mart offers an unsolicited and unprecedented ,000 to the Missoula Downtown Association, as it did in late December.

When Wal-Mart called MDA Executive Director Linda McCarthy to bestow the ,000 check, McCarthy was certain it was a mistake because her group hadn't applied for a grant. Her story in MDA's January newsletter, which details her efforts to double- and triple-check that the money really was intended for MDA, radiates surprise and ends by announcing the money will go toward a new performing stage at Caras Park.

Heather Hedahl, department manager for Wal-Mart's U.S. 93 store, explains the grant was a spur-of-the-moment, year-end decision. The local Wal-Mart gives about ,000 a year to 20-some nonprofit groups, Hedahl says, and happened to have one extra grant that hadn't been spoken for.

"We had free money just sitting there and we had to use it by the end of the year," Hedahl says. "They do fabulous things down there [at the MDA] so we decided to give it to them."

Meanwhile, in other Wal-Mart news, twice-rejected plans to expand the U.S. 93 store seem to be temporarily stalled. Since 2000, Wal-Mart has attempted to expand its 120,000-square-foot store into a 213,000-square-foot Supercenter with 10 gas pumps, a supermarket, bank, pharmacy, espresso bar and department store.

The Office of Planning and Grant's Jennie Dixon says she worked intensively with Wal-Mart this summer and, after a few quiet months, recently received notice the chain hoped to rev up the process again in January. However, Kristin Albers, project manager for Wal-Mart, says the project is still waiting for the go-ahead from Wal-Mart's real estate committee.

McCarthy says the MDA hasn't taken any position on Wal-Mart's presence or proposed expansion in the past, nor does it intend to: "I don't want to get into that political bailiwick," she says.

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