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Ready or Not, Here Comes Wal-Mart

Communities square off against the discount retail chain, even taking their fight to Congress

THE little red S.O.S. signs look starkly out of place on the stately leaf-speckled lawns of this quaint New England town.

But a Wal-Mart megastore would be even more incongruous here, says Carol Goodwin, a mother of six who is leading the Save Our Sturbridge (S.O.S.) campaign to keep the world's biggest retailer out of town.

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``Tourists don't come to Sturbridge to shop at Wal-Mart. They come for the ambiance and flavor of New England. How do you make a three-acre building with 2,000 parking places look colonial?'' Mrs. Goodwin asks.

S.O.S. is the latest of more than 100 civic groups nationwide squaring off against what disparagers call ``Sprawl-Mart.'' The discount chain is becoming a lightning rod for the charged debate about small versus big business, and Americans' lust for low prices versus the NIMBY (not in my backyard) preservationists of Small Town USA.

``There's more to life than cheap underwear. If Wal-Mart costs you the quality of life in your community, is it worth it?'' asks Al Norman, a political organizer who helped keep the discounter out of Greenfield, Mass., last year.

Many small-town groups across the nation - from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to North Elba, N.Y. - have been encouraged by the success of Greenfield and other New England towns now blocking Wal-Mart's expansion plans. They're networking, developing the media savvy and political sophistication to do the same. Mr. Norman, responding to the surge in anti-Wal-Mart forces, offers advice and a monthly newsletter ``Sprawl-busters Alert.''

Wal-Mart's reputation is taking a hammering. The Bentonville, Ark.,-based chain is also being skewered by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury. Last month, the United States House of Representatives' committee on small business held a hearing on the discount-retail trend.

There are other big discount retailers, but none are more successful or aggressive than Wal-Mart.

Ironically, company founder Sam Walton was fond of saying, ``Wal-Mart is small-town America.'' The company success formula is to avoid head-to-head competition with large regional department stores by putting its stores in small to mid-size towns. The strategy has worked spectacularly well since 1950, when the first Walton 5 & 10 opened.

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By 1974, Wal-Mart had become a $4.7 billion chain. This year, with more than 2,400 stores, sales are expected to top $80 billion. It is one of the nation's largest employers. One out of $10 spent in US department stores is rung up on a Wal-Mart register, calculates economist Thomas Muller, who testified at the congressional hearing.

In Arkansas, Mr. Muller says, 30 percent of all department-store sales go to Wal-Mart. He warns that Wal-Mart may be a national monopoly in the making. Last month, after a pitched battle, Vermont was the last state to join the Wal-Mart republic. ``In a few years, if current trends continue, one corporate entity may have a substantial share of all retail trade in the US,'' Muller says.

But Wal-Mart's arrival is prized by many sleepy American towns. The store is seen as a source of jobs, taxes, and new clients. ``I don't look at Wal-Mart as hurting business. It draws customers to our area,'' says Don Sarette, owner of Don's Family Sports Center in Hooksett, N.H., where the first Wal-Mart in New England arrived in 1991.

In Sturbridge, Wal-Mart has run radio and newspaper ads touting its $50 million in scholarships and charitable donations last year. The new plaza promises to bring $220,000 a year in tax revenues, 600 permanent jobs, and $1 million in road improvements to the town famous for its working 1830s village.

``That's Wal-Math,'' chides Sturbridge resident James Glickman. ``They only know how to add.'' Most jobs are low-paying, part-time posts; tax revenue will go toward fire equipment and police; and 19 intersections will be changed to handle increased traffic, which will reduce home values, he claims.

In an August town meeting, Sturbridge residents voted 600-to-100 against Wal-Mart coming. But the company isn't giving up. ``Thanks to all the publicity the S.O.S. people have generated, we've been inundated with calls, letters, and faxes of support. Clearly, a majority are with Wal-Mart,'' says company spokesman Don Shinkle.

In Sturbridge and elsewhere, preservationists worry that discounters represent a growing threat to small businesses and downtown commercial districts.

``It's a zero-sum game in lots of places where the population isn't growing,'' says Kenneth Stone, an Iowa State University economics professor who has studied Wal-Mart's impact on Iowa towns. ``If a 100,000-square-foot store does $30 million a year, that money doesn't come out of thin air.''

Doug Loescher, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, argues that small downtown businesses provide greater economic benefits to a community than big discounters. Local firms attract foot traffic, reducing the need for new roads; they use local suppliers, sponsor Little League teams and community events, and keep their money in local banks, he claims.

One solution to this dilemma is to encourage Wal-Mart and other discounters to move downtown.

Last month, Wal-Mart agreed to locate in downtown St. Johnsbury, Vt. ``We have no aversion to downtown locations,'' says Mr. Shinkle, if there is enough vehicle access, acreage, and parking.

But for some, the attempt to stop Wal-Mart and the march of free enterprise is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.

In 1947, Wal-Mart didn't exist. But Southern writer William Faulkner was already lamenting the destruction of a hometown historic courthouse to make way for ``a sprawling octopus'' dispensing ``cut-rate bargain lots, bananas, and toilet paper. They call this progress,'' he wrote. ``But they don't say where it's going; also, there are some of us who would like the chance to say whether or not we want the ride.''