Each year since 1988, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named what it calls America's 11 most endangered historic sites. Usually these are buildings or neighborhoods threatened by neglect or rampant development. But this year, an entire state made the endangered list.
It's the tiny northeast state of Vermont, population 600,000. Famous for its Green Mountain range, maple syrup and cheddar cheese, Vermont also made the list 11 years ago. Back then, the Wal-Mart discount retail chain announced plans to build Vermont's first so-called "big-box store." Peter Brink, the National Trust's senior vice president, says there are now four gigantic Wal-Marts in the state, carrying everything from carrots to computers to cuddly toys. With the chain now proposing its biggest Vermont store yet -- outside the little town of Saint Albans, near historic Lake Champlain -- the Trust has put Vermont back on its endangered list.
"We are not flatly against Wal-Mart or 'big-box' stores," says Mr. Brink. "We think they have a real role in our economy. And it is important to deliver goods to people at a very inexpensive price. What we are saying is that the size has gotten too big. And the location often goes out into the open countryside, as opposed to fitting in, or being close to, an existing downtown. Generally, people like what happens inside Wal-Mart. They like to be in there buying the goods. But they don't like what's happening outside, which is the acres and acres of surface parking, and the detrimental economic impact on downtowns, which slowly lose their economic viability.
In the capital city, Montpelier, Tom Slayton, the editor of the magazine Vermont Life, says development and population sprawl around Vermont's pretty towns are spoiling its quaint character. "In Williston," he says, "I've watched open fields and working farms gradually be covered with big-box stores. That's fine. People need to be able to buy the things they need. But the quality of this development is such that this particular part of Vermont looks exactly like Anywhere, U.S.A -- New Jersey or Southern California or Ohio -- that has a big-box development. It's not Vermont any more."
Company spokeswoman Mia Masten admits that Wal-Mart's arrival is often cited as the death knell of downtown shopping, luring customers and other retailers to strips of mega-stores and their cluttered advertising lights and signs. But, she says, downtowns are now experiencing a renaissance as people move back into the cities. "For a while there," notes Ms. Masten, "everyone was moving out into the suburbs, and Wal-Mart and other retailers were moving out with them to better serve their needs. As customers move more toward the downtown areas, you'll notice a shift in retailers moving to where the customers are."
But not in Saint Albans, Vermont, where the company says there's simply no space downtown big enough for a 13,000-square-meter store and its vast parking lot.
Peter Brink of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says Vermont's own preservation trust has identified developers in five other parts of the state who are actively investigating open land, with an eye toward erecting still more Wal-Marts. Ms. Masten denies the report. Right now, she says, Wal-Mart envisions only one new store in Vermont -- the big box near Lake Champlain.
[Note from the writer: In case you're wondering why the National Trust puts 11 sites on its endangered list, rather than the more common 10, it turns out that during the first year of the program in 1988, the committee picking the sites narrowed the choices down to 11 but could not agree on one more to eliminate. So the panel went with 11, and it's been that way ever since.]