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Calvert County One of Many Battlegrounds for Wal-Mart Expansion

Calvert County Maryland, once home to farmers and fishermen, is a rapidly growing area just outside of the nation's capitol. It is attracting national attention as the latest in a string of small communities fighting the biggest retail giant in America: Wal-Mart

Robin Gottlieb exclaims, "When I saw a sign saying Wal-Mart coming soon, I said, 'The hell they are!' "

Wal-Mart plans to build on a site in the town of Dunkirk, in Calvert County, which is in the eastern state of Maryland. And Robin Gottlieb, who heads a group known as 'Calvert Neighbors for Sensible Growth,' wants to stop it.

But it is no small feat to take on Wal-Mart. With more than 3,000 stores in America, Wal-Mart is an economic giant, the largest retailer and largest private employer in the country. Its success is based on on a simple business model… the customer comes first.

Friendliness is just part of its appeal. Wal-Mart stores offer customers thousands of products---from clothes to groceries--- at bargain prices, in giant stores often known as 'Big Boxes'.

One Wal-Mart customer states,"I buy all my household products , all my sodas, all my dog food, clothes for the kids, all kinds of stuff. Why? The prices are better, it's a lot cheaper than the grocery store, and it's just convenient."

But others in the Dunkirk community worried the big retailer would change the character of their small town, cause traffic congestion, and hurt small businesses.

At an emotional public hearing in July 2004, county officials listened to all sides.

That public hearing resulted in a law called the Big Box ordinance, which limits the size of new businesses in the county to 8,000 square meters, well under the average size of a Wal-Mart super store. But Wal-Mart found a legal loophole, and proposed to build two separate stores of legal size, side by side. Opponents, who thought they had won the battle, were outraged.

Robin Gottlieb explains. "What we don't accept is when someone comes here and says, 'Well, we're just going to sidestep the ordinance in your county and we'll figure out a way around them.' That's not playing fair, that's not right."

Since that interview, Wal-Mart representatives -- wanting to avoid a legal battle -- decided to build only one store on the site that meets the 8,000 square meter limit. But they continue to argue that market surveys show community support for a bigger store, and that they are being unfairly targeted.

Mia Masten is with Wal-Mart Corporate Affairs. "From our perspective, we think the customer should decide where to shop. What we are seeing a lot lately are there are some big box ordinances that are popping up that are discriminatory against Wal-Mart."

In fact, Dunkirk is only one in a series of communities where the large chain has faced massive opposition.

Some of the concern has to do with keeping the aesthetic quality of small towns, but there is also the question of what happens to a small town's Main Street, its shops and stores.

To Robin Gottlieb, the answer is obvious. "No one is going to go buy their Walkman at Radio Shack when they can get it over here less. There are huge deep discounts and that price tag you pay has a lot more ramifications than people realize."

Alan Tonelson, of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, says that price tags roughly 20 to 30 percent less than competitors mean Wal-Mart may eventually drive out small businesses such as those on Dunkirk's Main Street. "They (Wal-Mart) have more financial wherewithal than anybody else, and they can sell products at predatory prices, and they can undersell practically anyone. And they've done it in town after town."

But Wal-Mart insists it creates hundreds of jobs in the communities where it builds, and says the money consumers save with the chain's low prices, helps to stimulate those economies even more.

Mia Masten says, "We save over 20 billion dollars for customers by them shopping at our everyday low prices program. And it's not uncommon at all for there to be thousands of applications for every store we open.

The effect Wal-Mart has on local retailers varies. In some communities, local stores have managed to survive by specializing in products which Wal-Mart does not offer. But others have had to close down their doors.

Tim Kane, an economist with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group in Washington D.C., says the real impact on a local community can only be determined over time. “I'm not sure it is true Main Street dries up. I think Main Street changes. Some stores shut down, maybe real estate values go down for a few years, and then a new movie house opens or a couple new stores, or a diner. It's really a mistake to just focus on the immediate consequences without waiting for things to settle and reach an equilibrium."

As for Calvert County, the opposition has won the battle to limit the size of the Wal-Mart store on the lot. But Wal-Mart says it will revisit the issue in five years. By then, it is confident consumers will have grown used to Wal-Mart's everyday low prices, and will welcome a super-sized store that offers even more choices.

Wal-Mart may be right -- after all, its annual national sales are 250 billion dollars, and it has plans to build 300 more stores in the coming year.