<< Front page News April 9, 2004

Wal-mart to open golden door in Oberlin

Wal-mart is on the way: Wal-mart will be constructed at the intersection of U.S. Route 20 and Route 58 alongside the closed Ames outlet store.

Wal-Mart Corp. is coming to town, whether you like it or not. The chain made its third proposal for an Oberlin site in March, generating extensive debate over the existence of a large-scale retailer in a community that prides itself on local business. The retailer plans to begin construction in 2005 at the intersection of US Route 20 and Route 58.

Downtown business owners will be most affected by the presence of a big-box retailer.

“You can get your bon-bons a couple cents cheaper, if that’s what you want, and live in a community that’s disjointed, or you could live in a real community,” Dave Parsch, owner of Dave’s Army Navy, said.

People are likely to buy their basic necessities at Wal-Mart because of its low prices, so small business owners will have to narrow their inventory to stay competitive.

“As soon as something in our market gets hot, Wal-Mart will pick it up and I’ll have to drop that product,” Matrix Games’ owner Josh Perry said.

Many object to Wal-Mart because of its anti-union stance and low-wage employment of workers overseas and domestically. Over half of Wal-Mart employees in the U.S. are dependent on welfare. Wal-Mart Corp. has drawn fire from labor and human rights groups for paying overseas workers starvation wages and forcing them to work under substandard conditions.

“They’re all about getting low prices at the expense of almost anything, and I think sometimes ethics are more important than the lowest possible price,” sophomore Emily Reitz said.

However, some students feel that objecting to the development on such abstract grounds is short-sighted.

“It’s not fair for us as relatively well-off liberal college students to tell people of the town about the bigger picture and the long-range negative consequences of the growth and presence of Wal-Mart in this town, and the fact that it could even negatively impact their own lives later on, when they’re currently struggling to raise five children and can barely afford basic necessities,” first-year Sarah Klinkenberg said.

A major concern is the environmental impact of the project. The Wal-Mart is being constructed next to the old Ames department store, which will remain standing on the expanded site. Therefore, concerns have been raised about light pollution, storm water management, increased traffic and aesthetics.

Others are concerned that the store will interfere with the town’s character and sense of community.

“Lorain County used to be interesting, but now it’s homogenized,” Oberlin resident Laura Dahle said. “I’m worried that Oberlin will end up the same way.”

Many students and residents see the distinct local character of Oberlin’s business community as one of its greatest assets.

“The coolest thing right now about Oberlin is how independent a lot of the businesses are, and it would push them out,” first-year Scott Grogan said.

Yet many Oberlin townspeople see the construction of Wal-Mart as a positive development for the community. There are frequent complaints that small businesses downtown do not supply all of their needs and that products are often too expensive.

Wal-Mart will also bring jobs to the town’s unemployed. Oberlin’s tax base will increase, providing more money for public schools and the city council.

Some College students believe that Wal-Mart will be good for Oberlin. “[Wal-Mart] will increase tax revenue and employ more people,” first-year Anthony Contrada said.
“Have some respect for free-market economy,” first-year David Koehler said. “By speaking against Wal-Mart as a student attending an expensive private college, you’d just be buying into the system and then complaining about it.”

The College has not yet taken a position for or against the construction of Wal-Mart.

“The more salient issue is whether it is inevitable that the Wal-Mart will come in whether we take a position or not,” College Relations Director Al Moran said.

“Corporatization is the general trend in this country and something like this inevitably happens everywhere,” first-year Ian Casey said.

Wal-Mart Corp. has grown rapidly since its creation in 1962. In 1991, it went international, and now has stores in 10 countries other than the U.S. In 1999, it became the largest private employer in the world, with over one million employees in the United States alone. The company’s website announces “the continuation of its aggressive unit growth for [the coming] fiscal year,” which entails approximately 50,000 square feet of new retail space and constitutes an eight percent increase from current retail space.

This proposal marks the third time Wal-Mart Corp. has attempted to construct a store in Oberlin. The saga started in 2002, when developer Ken Young optioned the Gott farm on South Main Street near the new Oberlin Reserve development. Many Oberlin Reserve residents were outraged about the construction, which would have taken place in their backyards. The site was in Pittsfield Township, but in order for it to be connected to the sewer, the land needed to be annexed by the city. The township and the city got locked in debates over the terms of the annexation, including how tax revenue would be distributed. Before these issues could be settled, Young’s option on the land expired.

In the fall of 2003, Wal-Mart Corp. approached the city with another proposal, this one for a site south of U.S. Route 20. The township and the city both agreed that it was too far south for retail development. The city emphasized the Ames site, which it zoned commercial in the summer of 2002 to allow for big-box developments. Accused of being against development altogether, the city pointed to this site as proof that it was for development if it could be skillfully executed. “In fact, the City Manager issued a ‘10 point’ list of reasons why the Wal-Mart should be located at such a site,” Ron Belnap, a real estate manager for Wal-Mart Corp., said.

When Wal-Mart Corp. approached the city with the Ames site proposal, the focus of debate shifted to the store’s design. In late February, the Oberlin Planning Commission submitted a number of recommendations for design standards in the area. Stipulations included consideration of existing development, bike and pedestrian facilities, a public transit stop, storm water management, lighting, landscaping, aesthetics and a prohibition on new curb cuts to the highway, which can create traffic problems. On Tuesday, members of the Planning Commission received a letter from the attorney representing the developer which stated that the Oberlin Planning Commission must review the application under existing law, since any new regulations wouldn’t be retroactive.

Oberlin’s local Wal-Mart saga coincides with another corporate episode that has recently captured national headlines. In Inglewood, Calif., Wal-Mart paid citizens to sign petitions urging city officials to agree to construction of a Super Wal-Mart and launched a million dollar campaign to generate public support. This week, the public voted against it by a ratio of three to two. The initiative and its outcome were significant because Wal-Mart had never before used such aggressive tactics to gain support for its rapid growth.

“The spokesman from Wal-Mart said he wanted to be welcomed into our community,” City Council Chair Dan Gardner said. “Well, I guess they received a rowdy Oberlin welcome. But I’m glad that people on opposite sides of the issue and the majority spoke passionately and spoke well and that’s democracy.”

Many feel that Wal-Mart’s presence in Oberlin is emblematic of growing globalization.


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