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Wal-Mart not always welcome

Bringing Wal-Mart to town is easy. Preventing the world's largest retailer from breaking ground is a much more difficult task. Despite the challenge, some communities have successfully blocked the corporation.

Bringing Wal-Mart to town is easy. Preventing the world's largest retailer from breaking ground is a much more difficult task.

Despite the challenge, some communities have successfully blocked the corporation. Vancouver is in the process of restricting big box development, the City of Los Angeles is trying to do the same, and Inglewood, Calif. residents voted to reject a Wal-Mart store. In Nelson, the community elected a new mayor in the last election and the candidate who won played a key role in preventing Wal-Mart from opening a new store on the shores of the Western Arm of Kootenay Lake.

Nelson has some common traits with Squamish. The towns are similar in similar size, they are both mountain communities and both have waterfront property.

The Wal-Mart story in Nelson began in 1994 when Wal-Mart made its entry into Canada through the purchase of Woolco. The store in the Chanko-Mika Mall was transformed and, according to Nelson mayor Dave Elliott, Wal-Mart impacted a few businesses.

"It hasn't affected our downtown," said the mayor of the lakeside mountain community.

Wal-Mart decided that it wanted a larger store in Nelson. The company decided to build a super centre in close proximity to the existing store.

The plan in Nelson was to build the larger store on a piece of property that was three acres in size. Elliott said Wal-Mart wanted the new store to share the mall's existing parking lot.

The council of the day allowed Wal-Mart to start the process of making the new store a reality, said Elliott. Many in the community didn't like the idea and actively opposed the Wal-Mart plan.

"The main concern was that we did not want big box stores on the waterfront," Elliott told The Chief. "There is very limited flat space and the flat space on the waterfront is very desirable."

Elliott and others opposed to Wal-Mart's plan came together and bought the property Wal-Mart was eyeing.

After the opposition group purchased the land, Wal-Mart dropped its expansion plans in Nelson. Instead of building a new and larger store, Wal-Mart signed a 10-year lease to continue operating in its current Nelson location.

Elliott is no longer part of the ownership group. The current landowners are planning what Elliott calls an intensive mixed use development.

"The citizens of Nelson rose up and said, 'No, we are not going to have this this is our community and we are not going to have that here'," said Elliot. "The council was thrown out because they weren't listening."

Elliott said that Wal-Mart sends its profits back to the head office in the U.S. Local businesses, he said, spreads profits around the community.

The mayor noted that his community is concerned about urban sprawl and he said there is just no room for it in Nelson. Elliott said that the Wal-Mart proposal was mostly about the location. He and his supporters against the Wal-Mart proposal felt that putting a big box store on the property was unacceptable because of how desirable the waterfront land was.

"It is your community, not Wal-Mart's community," Elliott said of the struggle to prevent Wal-Mart from locating in places where large numbers of citizens don't want big box retail.

Now that Elliott is mayor, he said that if Wal-Mart came to his council with another proposal, he would look at it.

"If the community thinks it is okay, we'd support it," said Elliott.

Wal-Mart doesn't give up as easily as it appears to have done in Nelson. Residents initially rejected a new store proposed for Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota in 2002. The retailer persisted and a store has since opened at Inver Grove Heights. The city council there had a public hearing this week to consider a Wal-Mart application to operate a currency exchange.

Los Angeles is forcing big box retailers to prove that they won't have a negative economic and social impact when they bring forward proposals for new supercentres. The city council is currently considering an ordinance that would the city the first in the world to demand broad economic impact studies.

If Los Angeles is success in implementing the strict requirements for additional study before a store is built, other cities and towns are expected to adopted the concept.

There aren't many places that have succeeded in keeping big box retailers out but those communities that are successful get high praise from unions, sustainability boosters and human rights advocates who oppose sweatshops, poor wages and alleged racism.

Wal-Mart supporters need just write a letter to the company inviting it to explore their town and those who have access to the internet can visit, find the petition page and fill it out to indicate to the company that a store is desired.