The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News November 4, 2005

Wal-Mart opponents bring their case to campus
Living wage advocates hope to mobilize community
Major Objection: Oberlin citizens express concern over Wal-Mart at an on-campus meeting.

When he addresses an audience, Gerald Phillips stands with his face pointed toward the podium and peers over his glasses at the listeners in front of him. His tone is skeptical but rarely reserved. Like many Oberlin residents, he is passionate about his opinions. If there is anything the men and women who attend Oberlin events on Wal-Mart and the Living Wage have in common, it is just that: passion. They are also adamant about speaking until they are positive they have made their points.

Phillips is the attorney for Oberlin Citizens for Responsible Development as well as the attorney involved in placing a Living Wage charter amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot, and he moderated Wednesday night’s panel in the Science Center on Wal-Mart and the Living Wage. Introducing the main speaker, Oberlin alum David Porter (OC ’61), Phillips described Porter as “an activist like me.”

Since Porter’s arrival at Oberlin earlier this week, “I’ve grown to know him and understand him and we have a lot of common interests,” Phillips said. “We’ve been exchanging war stories about how we got involved in activist campaigns with citizens on various issues.”

Porter’s experiences are chronicled in a book he co-authored with Chester L. Mirsky titled Megamall on the Hudson: Planning, Wal-Mart and Grassroots Resistance. As a professor of political science at SUNY-Empire State College, Porter got involved in the mid-1990s with a campaign to stop the construction of a Wal-Mart in New Paltz, NY, a community about the size of Oberlin located halfway between Albany and New York City.

In the first part of his lecture, Porter discussed the commercial history of New Paltz and the developments of the 1970s and ’80s leading up to the Wal-Mart controversy. After the second World War, the State University expanded along with the residential and commercial sectors. In addition, an “old boy network of conservative politicians” arose in New Paltz and persisted through the 1970s and into the ’80s.

“This was a political regime that was basically the same thing that sociologists call the urban growth machine,” Porter said.

In terms of the actual Wal-Mart fight, Porter helped found a group called Save Our Community in response to a developer’s proposal to create a combination department store and chain grocer called “Huguenot Plaza” in New Paltz. While the developer never admitted that Wal-Mart was the department store they were planning to establish, personal connections between SOC allies and city planning workers revealed the truth of the New Paltz plan.

SOC focused its primary efforts on formulating an Environmental Impact Review of the potential effects of the development proposal. They interacted frequently with the town planning board to make their voices heard.

“We have in New York state a formal mechanism adopted in 1975 called the [State Environmental Quality Review Act],” Porter said. “It allows for serious research and analysis in environmental impact reviews concerning development projects. It’s a generic process which should be followed by every planning body.”

Even more importantly, it “remains one of the very few specifically legislated openings for grassroots participation in decision-making,” Porter said.

In their two-and-a-half-year struggle against Wal-Mart and the development-inclined planning board, Porter and SOC engaged in a continual discourse with agencies who were either neutral toward or in combat with their views. They put together an environmental impact statement based on studies done by independently recruited and hired experts to “engage in all the research we felt the planning board should be doing, but wasn’t,” Porter said.

Their environmental assessments of possible development influence had to compete with the better-funded and equally competitive claims of the developer before being considered legitimate in the eyes of the town planning board.

To make matters worse, there was a four-to-three majority of pro-development board members who Porter and company had to bring to their side before any environmental concerns could be objectively evaluated.

SOC’s primary assets in legitimizing arguments against the proposal, apart from their own fervent grassroots organizing efforts, were a handful of professional experts who provided advice and authority on water, traffic and economic issues surrounding commercial development. Between local experts who offered their services free of charge, including Porter’s co-author of Megamall on the Hudson, and nationally recruited specialists who were equally willing to devote time and knowledge to the New Paltz case, SOC acquired a certain amount of authority on the overall topic of just what a Wal-Mart would do to small-town New York state.

“Our strategy was to establish three things,” Porter said. “We wanted to establish a superior claim to scientific and legal authority. We wanted to be able to speak the discourse of the law and speak the discourse of the relative science that was involved.”

Along with that, “We wanted to acquire moral authority, to be regarded as the legitimate voice of the community,” Porter said. Finally, “We wanted to acquire the political authority to be responsible for making the decision for the proposal focused specifically on Huguenot Plaza.”

Their efforts also involved a coalition with the Downtown Business Society and the production of flyers, T-shirts, bumper stickers and petitions of over 2000 signatures all in protest against the creation of a New Paltz Wal-Mart.

After what seemed like an endless series of refined proposals and reconfirmed counter-attacks, Porter’s organization proved almost miraculously successful in winning the big-box fight. In the final planning board vote to approve the developer’s proposal, SOC came out with the majority in their favor, much to their own surprise.

When the developer was defeated and tried to offer its proposal to a community a mile away, “We worked with a local group there to develop their presentation to the planning board,” Porter said. “They developed such a tight agenda that a few months later the developer walked away.”

In the end, apart from the joy of actually stopping the Wal-Mart, the campaign Porter was involved in was also “a very important experience for expanding the consciousness in our community” between individual town residents and competing business factions.

In its honest and clear account of grassroots organizing and ultimate success, Porter’s lecture was an inspiring example to compare to Oberlin’s story.

Reverend Robert Strommen, who spoke after Porter, also emphasized over and over the importance of community improvement in his explanation of the significance of a Living Wage.

As he explained in September’s panel on Oberlin’s Living Wage ordinance proposal, Strommen said Wednesday that “I don’t like Wal-Mart; I don’t think Wal-Mart’s good for a community. But I want to talk about a Living Wage ordinance whether or not it would stop a Wal-Mart.”

While Strommen admitted that “a Living Wage is not a panacea for all the ills your community has; it is not a minimum wage,” he also was clear, confident and understandable in his final point:

“If people are to earn their income from work and have their health insurance from work, and if governments are going to spend money to create jobs, then at the very least the jobs created by public money should create jobs that pay enough to live on with health insurance.”

The Wednesday night panel, as well as its Thursday afternoon counterpart, had another similarity with September’s in that the question and answer sessions displayed previously subtle community conflicts.

During questions forPorter on Wednesday, one woman brought up the issue of the influence a company like Wal-Mart can have on individual city council members.

After Porter had offered his answer, Phillips took the podium again to say that “the city of Oberlin was bullied and intimidated and they didn’t take a very aggressive stand.”

The woman who originally brought up the question completely disagreed.

“We were not bullied into it,” she said. “If you knew this community you wouldn’t say that the people in this community are even half-and-half against Wal-Mart.”

When Phillips protested, “I know how people are feeling,” she added. “They are looking for a place near where they can shop for the things they need.”

When a different audience member brought up the fact that Oberlin College is exempt from the Living Wage Ordinance, Robert Strommen said, “Forgive me for saying this but students at Oberlin are the last vestiges of a leisure class. The Living Wage is supposed to allow people to support a family and “students don’t have that.”

On Thursday afternoon, Porter gave a similar talk to Wednesday’s.

He was followed by Ken Kowalski, a law professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University who was involved in drafting the Living Wage proposals for both Cleveland and Lakewood. Kowalski offered a brief history of the steps taken to establish Cleveland’s Living Wage, and then took questions.

Once again, amidst concerns directed specifically at Kowalski and his experiences, inter-audience arguments arose about partially discernible differences in opinion on Oberlin’s future Wal-Mart.

Lectures and panel discussions on both Wal-Mart and the potential Living Wage ordinance are always informative events for a few Oberlin students and many town residents. Nevertheless, the layers of community tension about all of these controversial issues become more, not less, apparent as conversation and communication between outside speakers and inside figures continues to progress.


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