Little Houses, Big Boxes

Martha Rich

Bill Klein wants to be able to buy socks in Inver Grove Heights. And shirts. And shoes.

"How big is Inver Grove Heights?" asks Klein, a member of the southeastern suburb's city council. "Thirty thousand people. That's a pretty big town, isn't it? Bigger than Hastings. Bigger than Cottage Grove. Bigger than West St. Paul. Bigger than South St. Paul. Bigger than Mendota Heights. Do you know where in Inver Grove Heights you can buy a pair of shoes, a shirt, a pair of socks? Anything like that?"

The answer, according to Klein, is nowhere.

He believes another answer could and should be Wal-Mart. The ubiquitous retailing behemoth wants to build a 142,000-square-foot store on Concord Boulevard, just east of Highway 52 in the southeast-metro suburb. Klein is so enthusiastic about the project that he is running for mayor of Inver Grove Heights. "I don't want to run for mayor, but I am," huffs Klein, a ten-year veteran of the city council. "I've run every time for development of commercial in this community, and I've made no secret about that. I've been pushing commercial so that we can get a pair of shoes and some clothes here."

Klein isn't likely to get many votes in Arbor Pointe. Residents of the 850-home, 450-plus-acre planned development, which was constructed by Roseville-based Rottlund Homes over the past decade, have been the ringleaders of a spirited fight to keep Wal-Mart out of their backyard. The neighbors have even created an advocacy group, Citizens for a Better Inver Grove Heights, to thwart the development's progress.

"We used our life savings for this house," says Stacey Jeffers, a Wal-Mart opponent who lives across Concord Boulevard from the proposed site with her husband Marc. "I'm sure everyone else did, too, for that matter. We moved to Inver Grove Heights for a reason. It's because we didn't want to live in Eagan or Woodbury with all the stores and stoplights."

The battle comes down to two competing visions for the future of Inver Grove Heights. While the suburb has long prided itself on avoiding the development excesses of surrounding suburbs, some residents are fed up with having to visit a neighboring municipality just to shop. "There's some businesses in town who are afraid of Wal-Mart," Klein asserts. "They've had it real nice here with 30,000 folks."

In May, by a 4-3 vote, the Inver Grove Heights Planning Commission endorsed the Wal-Mart development. Next week it is slated to come before the city council. For the project to go forward, four of the five council members will have to vote for zoning changes. Under current guidelines, no building larger than 75,000 square feet would be allowed on the property; and that's barely half the size of the proposed Wal-Mart. With the exception of Klein, none of the city officials are publicly stating which way they will vote.

Despite this reluctance by city council members to show their cards, opponents of the development believe they have the two necessary votes to derail the project. They were equally confident, however, heading into the planning-commission meeting--only to have one Wal-Mart opponent switch his vote.

Mayor Joe Atkins, who is leaving his post to run for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives, says there are a number of potential problems with the project, including traffic congestion and the sheer size of the store. But he stops short of taking a side. "I feel an obligation to keep from making a decision until all the testimony's been heard," he says.

Residents of Arbor Pointe say their opposition to the Wal-Mart development is not based simply on self-interest and property values. They claim they were deceived by Rottlund Homes. While telling potential buyers that the land would be developed with small-scale retail and office space, the residents maintain, Rottlund was secretly making a deal with Wal-Mart. "They were still talking about this vision of small neighborhood retail," says Eric Schubert, who closed on his house in May of last year. "I had zero inkling--and no one in this community did, as far as I know."

In fact, most residents didn't become aware of the plans for Wal-Mart until the beginning of this year, after most of the houses in the surrounding area had already been sold. "Some people who bought from Rottlund are calling this the mother of all bait-and-switches," says Jess Myers, whose new home overlooks the Wal-Mart site. "Why was it kept a secret until all the homebuyer agreements were signed?" Citizens for a Better Inver Grove Heights has talked with a lawyer, and the group says it may sue Rottlund if the Wal-Mart project moves forward.

Michael Noonan, vice president for the Minnesota division of Rottlund Homes, dismisses talk of a conspiracy between Rottlund and Wal-Mart. "I'm not going to comment on that," Noonan says. He allows that Rottlund had discussions with Wal-Mart as far back as April 2001, but he maintains that they were very preliminary talks. "Did we know what Wal-Mart was proposing at that point in time? No."

Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio maintains that the company has gone out of its way to address the concerns of neighbors. "I think we've been above-board and very forthcoming, and engaged the neighbors to come up with the best project possible," Bisio says. He points out that in order to placate neighbors, the building plans have been altered three times and now include a sloped roof and covered walkway. "It is by no means a standard or prototype Wal-Mart store."

Wal-Mart is the biggest publicly traded corporation in the world, with sales of $220 billion last year, upward of 1.2 million employees, and more than 3,200 stores worldwide. There are currently 14 Wal-Marts in the Twin Cities metro area, with another store in Shakopee under construction. "You're gonna have a Wal-Mart every 15 minutes off the freeway," says Bernie Hesse, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 789, which is trying to unionize Wal-Mart employees. "That's their plan for saturation."

With the retailer's colossal growth, however, has come increased scrutiny. Wal-Mart has drawn fire for anti-union policies, poor working conditions, and the negative economic impact its stores have on locally owned businesses. A 1997 study by Iowa State University economics professor Ken Stone concluded that small towns in Iowa lost up to 47 percent of their retail trade after having to compete with Wal-Mart for ten years. A recent string of lawsuits in state and federal courts accuses the retailing giant of locking employees inside stores and forcing them to put in extra hours off the clock. According to the New York Times, such lawsuits have now been filed in 28 states by former or current employees.

As Wal-Mart and its subsidiary Sam's Club have proliferated across the nation, they've also left a string of big-box relics in their wake. According to the company's Web site, there are currently more than 400 Wal-Mart stores available to be leased or purchased, with Texas alone featuring 53 stores on the market. Stacy Mitchell, a researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance and the author of Hometown Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why It Matters, says that all big-box retailers are guilty of abandoning stores when they no longer suit the company's needs. "Target has empty stores, Best Buy, Loews, Circuit City--but Wal-Mart's kind of the king."

The phenomenon of vacated Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores is just taking hold in Minnesota. There are currently six available locations, ranging in size from 70,000 to 100,000 square feet. Perhaps most revealing is that one of the stores available for lease is in Inver Grove Heights. The 100,000-square-foot Sam's Club, on Mendota Road, will go out of business at the end of this month. "We've been hearing for three years that it's closing," laments Mayor Atkins.

Mitchell says that the end result of Wal-Mart's shoddy labor practices and scorched-earth growth is that towns like Inver Grove Heights are increasingly hostile to the retailer. She says that it wasn't long ago that the opening of a new Wal-Mart was greeted by high school marching bands and appearances by local politicians. "That doesn't happen anymore," Mitchell notes. "Wal-Mart is much more likely these days to be met by a pretty well-organized and angry group of citizens."

All that said, Inver Grove Heights officials insist that Wal-Mart's record as a corporate citizen, no matter how tarnished, will not play into next week's vote. Instead the decision will be based solely on the city's zoning ordinances and whether Wal-Mart fits within the municipality's overall plan for development. "You can look at almost any employer and find the bad parts," explains city council member Rosemary Piekarski Krech.

If Inver Grove Heights turns Wal-Mart away, Bill Klein may find some solace at Snyders Drug Store. This longtime fixture on Cahill Avenue in downtown Inver Grove Heights offers a veritable sock smorgasbord. For a mere $3.99 you can purchase three pairs of men's or women's cotton sports socks. Eight dollars will get you a half-dozen pairs of over-the-calf tube socks. There are gray thermal socks, baby booties, and ladies' trouser socks (with spandex) in black, gray, or blue. There are also T-shirts (three for $10) and flip-flops ($2).

Unfortunately for Klein, however, Snyders does not sell any all-season footwear. For that, he may just have to drive to Eagan.

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