Expert Witness

I was entertained by a Saturday-morning conversation over coffee with a guest as we sat in the breakfast nook at the south end of my kitchen, sunlight illuminating the oval, walnut tabletop through parted, blue, Whig-Rose curtains on the double-hung window.

Although the distinguished gent, nearly 70 and “semi-retired,” had stayed with us before, I had never asked what he did or had done for a living. All I knew was that he wore an air of success and sophistication. I finally discovered why: He had been an executive at the ground level of a big New England retail chain, then a developer of many Southwestern shopping centers, two of which he still owns and leases because now is not the time to sell. When I asked him what types of chain stores he targeted as centerpieces of his developments, he identified one as Home Depot, which begged for the quick question. Had he ever built a Wal-Mart plaza? No. He didn’t agree with Wal-Mart’s business model and preferred not to harm existing downtown retail space. I found his response interesting. This from a developer, of all people, someone I would expect to embrace any big-box store willing to pony up. He had no trouble explaining his guiding principles.

“It’s no secret that Wal-Marts are bad for local economies,” he said matter-of-factly, “so I chose not to contribute. Plus, they’re very demanding on developers, don’t want to pay for anything. Communities don’t know what they’re getting into when they accept them. They soon find out they have to expand streets, add traffic lights, you name it, many expensive ‘hidden costs.’

“If you don’t believe me, take a cross-country ride on the Interstates and you’ll see it over and over again. I call it my three-exit theory. You pull off at the first exit and enter a town of cheap antique malls and tacky bar/restaurants. Wal-Mart’s right off the second exit and the parking lot is full, bustling with shoppers. The third exit is a ghost town. That’s what I call the Wal-Mart effect.”

The man’s daughter overheard our discussion from the adjacent dining room and joined in. An Air Force wife now living in the Caribbean, she’s been around and was quite familiar with the picture her father was painting. “It’s not hard to find,” she said. “You’ll find those three exits all over the country.”

A graduate of Northfield Mount Hermon School and wife of a Deerfield Academy grad, she knew downtown Greenfield of the late ’80s and thought it had perked up in the 20 years she had been away. She remarked favorably on the ongoing downtown facelift, even praised the increased number cars parked along Main Street (must have caught it on a good day). “Looks like they’re making progress,” she opined. “I noticed it right away. The improvements probably wouldn’t be happening if Wal-Mart had come to town.”

Which brought us to another subject. Her father was interested in Greenfield’s infamous Wal-Mart battle, one he was not familiar with before I mentioned it. “They were able to keep it out?” he asked. “Interesting. Tell me about it. How’d they accomplish that?” When I told him how Al Norman had gained local folk-hero status, then national spawlbuster fame for leading Greenfield’s anti-Wal-Mart charge around 1990, he said the community should be thankful. Norman had done a good deed. Maybe they ought to erect a statue. I just chuckled and told him there was a day when Norman was held in high regard locally, still is by many. But these days the man known as “Spawlbuster” is largely vilified following two decades of class warfare between those who say they need Wal-Mart and the antis they call elitist because they can afford to shop elsewhere.

The divisive line of attack didn’t surprise my genteel guest. He said the argument is old and threadbare, right out of the tattered Wal-Mart playbook. The game plan is simple: draw the battle lines, pit the haves against the have-nots and let democracy work its magic. It all comes down to a numbers game, and there are always more have-nots. They just have to be whipped into a frenzy, given slogans and encouraged to start the name-calling — a game plan that works to a T in hand-to-hand rhetorical combat.

What’s important to remember is that these observations were coming from a successful businessman, a definite “have” who cut his teeth in big-box retail, then branched off into big-box development. He even touched briefly on the genesis of the regional retail giant he helped to start; said the plan was to buy overruns, sell them cheap and promote what became a prosperous chain store as “local.” But the subject he addressed next was even more fascinating. He wanted to know about Greenfield’s growth potential. Having lived for many years in New England, where he still summers, he was familiar with the region and guessed that Greenfield’s population is stable. Was that right? Yes. In fact, Greenfield’s numbers have probably dropped a bit since the ’60s and ’70s, when industry was booming, good jobs plentiful. Well, he said, in that case Wal-Mart would be double trouble. Growing communities can support big-box development; stable populations cannot.

“It’s pretty simple if you do the math,” he explained. “Say the existing downtown retail space is 220,000 square feet, the size Wal-Mart always shoots for. If Wal-Mart comes in and builds a 220,000-square-foot store on the outskirts of town, the market cannot support both districts. The impact on downtowns is devastating; they die because Wal-Marts undersell them. Wal-Mart’s goal is to seize the market, and they’re very good at it; even bring in dentists and barbers and hair dressers, which doesn’t help towns much, either.”

The man said you can’t compare a town like Greenfield to his native city of Tuscon, Ariz., which had a population of 300,000 when he was a boy. The population today is more than a million and growing, already more than three times what it was 50 years ago, and thus able to support a big-box-retail boom. Greenfield has no potential to double or triple in size.

Conversations like the one we’ve discussed here make life interesting for innkeepers, who greet many interesting folks with wisdom to share. This particular discussion came out of the clear blue sky on a beautiful morning, and touched on a hot local issue. It developed quite by coincidence and I thought it worthy of sharing — just one more expert opinion to consider when shaping your own for the Greenfield big-box debate. And, again, remember that it came from an unlikely source, one with no ax to grind and years of experience, not to mention inside observation, on which to base his opinions.

I guess the point is that it never hurts to listen, something the pro-growth Penrick crowd apparently hasn’t learned. They’d rather shout down voices of reason and fight economic-impact studies. It reminds me of helpful advice a friend’s father never hesitated to impart. After witnessing a conversation he viewed as one-sided, he’d find the right time to inform his son that people who do all the talking learn nothing. Today that boy’s a man who knows when to talk and when to listen.

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