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Is Wal-Mart inevitable?
Critics see a possible development in rural Hopkinton as a sign of how big-box retailers are threatening to overrun Rhode Island
BY IAN DONNIS

GARY WILLIAMS FEELS sold out. Like a number of other people in Hopkinton, he expected town officials to draw the line against the kind of generic development — typified by such giant retailers as Wal-Mart and Home Depot — now found in Warwick, North Kingstown, Westerly, Providence, Coventry, Newport, Woonsocket, and other communities around Rhode Island. Instead, a majority of the Hopkinton Town Council recently backed a vote that could transform 56 acres of rural countryside into a suburban-style development, complete with a big-box store as an anchor.

Although a formal proposal has yet to be made, and the company with options to develop the site, W/S Development of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, is still conducting a preliminary feasibility assessment, critics fear the worst when it comes to preserving Hopkinton’s historic charm. Proponents say the development — similar to one that W/S Development created in Smithfield, with a mix of smaller and larger stores — will have limited impact and provide much-needed tax revenue.

This familiar argument has sometimes met the spread of big-box retailers as they’ve rolled over the Rhode Island landscape in the last 10 years, wiping out independently-owned businesses and leaving the vacant hulks of storefronts and strip malls in their wake. No retailer typifies this trend more than Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, which reaps more than $250 billion in annual sales, attracts 20 million shoppers daily and, according to the New York Times, would represent China’s eighth-largest trading partner if it were an independent nation. And although the wildly successful retailer promotes itself with a homespun image, it seems rapacious in its quest for ever-increasing product lines and ever-larger market share.

Although Hopkinton residents can easily make the drive to a Wal-Mart in Warwick in 15 or 20 minutes, many seems to relish the South County town’s absence of big-box retailers. To Williams, who teaches eighth- and ninth-graders in neighboring Stonington, Connecticut, the possible advent of a suburban-style shopping center is inexplicable and maddening, not least because the impacts haven’t been studied. Like a range of critics, extending from US Senator Lincoln Chafee and the town Planning Board to Grow Smart Rhode Island, Williams fears that the anticipated development — near exit one on Interstate 95, where Connecticut passes into Rhode Island — will bring additional growth and erode Hopkinton’s rustic charm.

Williams, who has lived in town for 17 years, was sufficiently outraged that he now chairs a citizens’ group, Hopkinton First!!, and vows that the majority of town councilors who went against the will of the community will get their comeuppance in November. "I talked to a guy who’s lived here for 40 years, and he says he’s never seen anything like this," Williams says, referring to meetings that have drawn hundreds of residents. "That’s the democratic process at its best," he asserts, "and it’s not going to go away, I can guarantee you that."

Linda J. DiOrio, president of the Hopkinton Town Council, doesn’t seem alarmed, though. For starters, DiOrio expresses confidence that commercial development and zoning guidelines can ensure that the anticipated W/S Development project blends with the town’s character and doesn’t trigger a burst of related development. "I’m not in favor of sprawl," she says. "I don’t want to see franchise alley going down Route 3." DiOrio notes that the development would expand the town’s tax base as it faces an estimated 17 percent increase in the local tax levy. Noting that the town is seeking an impact study, she also believes that the development has the support of a quiet majority of town residents. Hopkinton First!! gathered about 850 signatures on a petition, "but there are close to 5000 voters in Hopkinton," she says. "It’s a good showing, but I’m not sure it’s what everyone feels."

Certainly, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart could not have become the world’s largest retailer without the support of millions of shoppers who routinely vote with their spending. Most people find it far easier to gravitate toward the big-boxes with the huge inventory and appealing prices — Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Best Buy, Target, and the like — than to mull the social consequences.

Still, the unrestrained march of the big-boxes seems striking especially when Wal-Mart, in particular, has become a subject of negative attention. In perhaps its most audacious move, the giant retailer unsuccessfully sought the right to disregard local and state laws for a proposed store in Inglewood, California. Even the Providence Journal, not necessarily a critic of the culture of consumerism, noted in an April 29 editorial, "Wal-Mart has many enemies. Workers rail against the chain’s anti-union activities and poor wages — which lower all workers’ wages. Communities hate that Wal-Mart puts other merchants out of business, thus emptying downtown of their life. US manufacturers condemn Wal-Mart’s bare-knuckle haggling over prices, which forces the manufacturers to move factories abroad, where labor costs pennies an hour."

Yet as long as there are landowners willing to sell property, and developers willing to buy it, the cycle of development seems likely to continue in Rhode Island, spreading to those places — like Hopkinton — that have been thus far spared from the big-box onslaught.

SCOTT WOLF, the executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, a nonprofit that promotes responsible development, finds the location of the possible Hopkinton development, in the rural southern corner of the state, troubling on several fronts. Extending big-box retail development, from cities and suburban communities to a small town, places greater stress on the environment, he says. It seems unlikely to enhance Hopkinton’s distinctive sense of identity. And by not concentrating growth in cities or traditional villages, Wolf says, it continues a cycle that threatens to eliminate the rural quality that sets South County apart from the rest of the state.

Considering the ease with which Rhode Islanders can find bucolic natural settings, it’s deceptively easy to diminish the threat that development poses to the landscape. But a report commissioned five years ago by Grow Smart lays bare the challenge: More land has been developed in the state over the past 34 years than in the first 325 years of Rhode Island’s history. Even more troubling, the study found that "staying on our sprawl course over the next 20 years will cost Rhode Island taxpayers almost $1.5 billion, a figure close to our total annual state budget."

Although Wolf remains uncertain whether Rhode Island — with eight Wal-Marts and several more in nearby Massachusetts — is reaching a point of saturation for big-box retailers, he remains concerned about potential ripples sparked by the potential precedent of the Hopkinton development.

Some people, noting how the state is heavily urbanized, might not see the negative consequences of Rhode Island losing its rural character. Such talk loses sight, he says, of how Rhode Island is blessed with a fairly sophisticated metropolis in proximity to some of the least developed areas on the East Coast. "If we blow that, we don’t have a lot to fall back on," Wolf says, since Rhode Island, which relies heavily on tourism, lacks such conventional economic development calling cards as low taxes or big industrial parks. "Our calling card is our charm, our historic charm, our natural beauty," Wolf says. "That’s a critical part of Rhode Island. If we’re not vigilant about preserving that, we lose it." Citing the words of Kip Bergstrom of the state Economic Development Council, Wolf says, "You lose that, you lose your soul."

 

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Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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