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Manifest Destiny

Intent on Western expansion, Wal-Mart turns democracy upside-down

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It seems like the perfect site for a shopping center: A burning slab of undeveloped Southern California blacktop spreads over 60 acres, while traffic rushes by on all sides. The people who live in the surrounding houses are tired of driving to nearby cities like Gardena, Torrance and Los Angeles to dine and buy clothes and widgets. Besides, Inglewood could use an economic shot in the arm.

Inglewood resident Danny Tabor saw the potential. The space might have been filled by businesses he likes--maybe a Chili's restaurant, an Outback Steakhouse or an Old Navy clothing store. As a former city councilman, he knew a shopping center could bring in needed tax revenue. After all, he was on the council when it approved a Costco, and now, he says, he's addicted to shopping there.

But this spring, Tabor helped lead a local uprising against the shopping center proposal, because there was one problem: The only surefire tenant, and the primary backer, was Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The company planned to build one of its giant, 200,000-square-foot supercenters--the combined discount-pharmacy-grocery stores that Wal-Mart is planting in communities around the West.

From suburban Denver, Colo., to Washington's apple country, from the resort blowout of Park City, Utah, to the faux-adobe subdivisions of New Mexico and Arizona, Wal-Mart's aggressive expansion has become a symbol of how big-box retailers and franchise chains invade communities. In self-defense, many Western communities have adopted "anti-big-box ordinances."

Wal-Mart has threatened lawsuits, sued, and, when that hasn't worked, has taken to what may be its most dangerous practice: co-opting local democracy itself. In community after community, it has gathered enough petition signatures to put the issue to voters, overwhelming its opposition with millions of dollars in advertising and mailers, frosting its agenda in a populist coating.

In Inglewood, Wal-Mart took this approach to the next level, attempting to exempt itself from all of the local planning rules. As one opponent here puts it, "Wal-Mart was trying to establish a sovereign state inside the city of Inglewood."

Yet local opponents beat Wal-Mart at its own game. In Inglewood, as Danny Tabor sits at a table at Bourbon Street Fish, he can look across the street and see the 60-acre space where Wal-Mart wasn't allowed to build. To him, the empty space represents neither a lost opportunity for low-priced meals or shopping, nor a missing municipal gold mine. Instead, it symbolizes his community's stand against the biggest corporation in the world.

"Democracy worked for people in this sense," Tabor says, "against big business."

From its tiny beginning, Wal-Mart has grown into a retail behemoth through its single-minded focus on slashing prices, cutting costs and moving huge volumes of merchandise.

In an effort to to project a friendly image, Wal-Mart pours millions of dollars into scholarships, the United Way and recycling programs. But today's Wal-Mart is a species of corporation never seen before. It is the world's largest company, with annual sales of more than $250 billion. In the United States, Wal-Mart is the No. 1 seller of clothing, toys, home furnishings, home textiles, housewares, tableware, DVDs, vacuum cleaners, televisions and video game consoles, and it has the nation's largest private trucking fleet, reports the Denver Post.

Soon after it launched its supercenters in 1988, Wal-Mart also became the nation's leading grocer. The nation's approximately 1,448 Wal-Mart discount stores have been joined by 1,506 supercenters. In the West, Wal-Mart's expansion is nothing short of a stampede. In Utah, Wal-Mart took out $130 million worth of commercial building permits in 2003, according to a University of Utah study--12 percent of the state's nonresidential total. In California alone, it plans to open another 40 supercenters--each larger than five football fields--within six years.

And as Wal-Mart has grown, its image has changed. It has been accused of "predatory pricing"--coming in initially with lower prices, killing off the competition and then raising prices. Wal-Mart's low wages also force its competitors to lower their pay in order to compete.

In Fort Collins, Colo., developers used a manufactured grassroots campaign, fueled with cash, to convince voters to pass a ballot initiative overturning their city council's 1996 decision to reject a supercenter. The opposition was preparing a lawsuit that challenged the ballot initiative, when Wal-Mart supporters brought in their own lawyers. They threatened a countersuit that would have held organizers personally responsible for stopping the project. Wal-Mart foes backed down. Fort Collins now has a supercenter--and a locally owned grocery store has closed.

The tactic doesn't always work. Voters in Glendale, Ariz., defeated a ballot measure introduced by Wal-Mart that would have overturned a city council decision to rule out a supercenter, as did voters in Inglewood.

With its strip of well-patronized box stores along Century Avenue, breezy Inglewood seems like an unlikely stage for the most spectacular political battle yet between Wal-Mart and local community foes. But Inglewood is a strong union town, with an estimated 10,000 households that include a union member. As a result, the unions have a strong role in local politics.

Early last year, when Wal-Mart and its partner, Rothbart Development, came forward with the HomeStretch supercenter proposal, the Inglewood City Council hastily drafted a generic big-box ordinance that banned stores larger than 150,000 square feet that sold more than a limited amount of groceries. Once again, Wal-Mart began to gather signatures and threatened to sue. The council backed down, rescinding the ordinance. The opposing sides marshaled their forces.

Wal-Mart concentrated on wooing the public. The company crafted "Measure 04-A," a 71-page plan for the HomeStretch shopping center, and started gathering signatures to put it on the ballot.

In an attempt to build an army of support that included greater Los Angeles, the company hired Kerman Maddox, a locally famous political consultant and TV personality, to spread the word about a recently opened discount store in nearby Baldwin Hills--a "good Wal-Mart story," as Wal-Mart spokesman Peter Kanelos puts it.

On April 6, despite outspending its opponents at least 5 to 1, Wal-Mart lost. Inglewood voters shot down Measure 04-A by a 3-to-2 margin.

Over the past few months, Inglewood's victory seems to have emboldened other city leaders in the West.

In California alone, nearly a dozen towns and counties have adopted anti-big-box ordinances. But even in Inglewood, the promise of low prices is too good to shelve completely. The victory over Wal-Mart may not be permanent. Only 11,624 people voted in the referendum, a small fraction of Inglewood's population.

Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn, who backed Wal-Mart and endorsed the measure, desperately wants Wal-Mart to try again. "The city needs these 60 acres to be developed," he says. "The city needs these jobs. The city needs $3 to $5 million in sales tax."

So the Inglewood city government plans to ask Wal-Mart to put together another proposal--this time, for just a regular-size discount store.

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