Struggling Town Split Over Wal-Mart Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even in these boom times, good jobs are hard to find in this North Coast town, where logging and fishing are no longer career options and nothing has come along to replace them.

Faced with the boarded-up storefronts that pock the downtown commercial strip and a jobless rate above the state average, you might think folks would have rolled out the red carpet when Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, said it wanted to open a store downtown.

Instead, they jumped on the Internet to learn everything they could about the impact Wal-Mart has on small communities. Alarmed, Wal-Mart opponents then flew in an East Coast consultant who has helped communities across the nation fight big-box retailers.

The result? Even though Wal-Mart is promising to create 250 jobs, contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual sales tax revenue to city coffers and clean up a severely polluted, 30-acre port site, it finds itself in a fierce fight with a cross-section of Eurekans who say they don't want the retailer in their town.

The debate will come to a head Aug. 24, when residents vote in a special election with just one measure on the ballot. It asks them whether they want to change the zoning on the port site to allow commercial development.

But no one thinks of this as a zoning question. The Wal-Mart fight has become a bitter, symbolic struggle over identity and hope in a community whose past was built around logging and fishing and whose future remains uncertain.

Many Fear Low-Wage Jobs

For many, Wal-Mart represents a scary destiny of low-wage service jobs and the end of a dream of turning the waterfront into a money-making commercial port.

For supporters, however, the retailer offers jobs for a town they believe is too remote to ever attract real industry, sales tax revenue and a chance--as one letter-writer to the local newspaper put it--to buy cheap underwear in a place where bargains are hard to come by.

The fight already has crumbled political alliances and soured friendships. It promises to get even nastier before it is over.

"I have a nice big husband, and I don't go shopping without him anymore. A couple of people have just gotten too aggressive," said Jerri Murphy, a member of the pro-Wal-Mart political action committee.

Mayor Nancy Flemming said she has had similar experiences.

"It's been personally very hard. I've lost friendships over this," said the mayor, now serving her third term. She has publicly fallen out with her onetime political mentor, county Supervisor Bonnie Neely, over the project, which Neely passionately opposes.

"I think putting a Wal-Mart on the port is the laziest, most uncreative use for the coast I've ever seen," Neely said.

Known for its discount prices and big-box stores surrounded by vast parking lots, Wal-Mart, which had sales revenue of $137 billion last year, has run into community opposition before. In California, where Wal-Mart has built 106 stores in the past nine years, it has come to expect protests.

From suburban Orange County to remote Del Norte County, the prospect of a Wal-Mart coming to town has turned out supporters and opponents in droves.

In 1992, redevelopment officials in Anaheim eagerly wooed the retailer to Anaheim Plaza, an aging mall they were rebuilding. The city wanted to secure the jobs, the discount shopping opportunity and the sales tax revenue a Wal-Mart offers. The store opened in 1995.

Others fear the behemoth will wipe out their local businesses and bring traffic, pollution and congestion to their small-town streets. In Fort Bragg, on the Mendocino coast, Wal-Mart's recent expression of interest spurred opponents to hold a town hall meeting on its evils. The retailer has not even submitted a proposal.

Indeed, opposition to Wal-Mart in towns across the United States has become so common that Al Norman, who helped fight off a Wal-Mart in his native Greenfield, Mass., now advises others on how to block development of big-box retailers.

Norman, who founded an organization called Sprawl-Busters, claims to have helped thwart construction of at least 30 big retail stores.

Daphne Davis, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart who has laid out its plans at Eureka public hearings, said the company is accustomed to criticism.

"We're not a perfect company, but we do a lot of good things," Davis said. "The company certainly has grown in recent years and continues to grow and we have experienced a certain measure of success. . . . Whenever you're in the spotlight like that, perhaps there is a thrill in taking on the big guy."

Davis insisted Wal-Mart would bring business back into Eureka's downtown shopping area. The company is negotiating with the city to provide a shuttle service for its shoppers to the small stores that are part of the city's redevelopment project, and also will build a park on its land, facing the port.

Residents here launched a petition drive to rezone the site Wal-Mart wants to buy from Union Pacific Railroad after the California Coastal Commission refused last fall to allow the change.

The town has had only one other such zoning-by-ballot effort, in the early 1960s, when voters over-whelmingly approved a change allowing the town's first mall to be built.

But that was the initiative of a local businessman. This one is underwritten primarily by the nation's largest private employer, a retailer that owns 2,600 stores in the United States and is expanding overseas. Some Eurekans feel bullied.

"I don't like them," said Kaye Strickland, a Wal-Mart opponent. "They are pushy and arrogant."

"This is more than just a zone change thing. It is a David and Goliath thing," said Ben Shepherd, a Wal-Mart opponent and local businessman, who acknowledges he is frightened by the thought of his feed and garden store having to compete with the retailer. "This huge business is coming in here and saying: 'We will do what we want to do.' It's become a question of pride," he said.

Shop windows sport signs with a red slash through the word Wal-Mart. There has been a lot of name-calling at public hearings, a town hall meeting that drew nearly 1,000 people in a city of 28,000 and a pile of letters--both pro and con--to the editor of the local newspaper. Under pressure from Wal-Mart opponents, the City Council has agreed to fund a $35,000 economic study of the impact any big-box retailer would have on the local economy.

The county Board of Supervisors has set up a committee to study the same issues countywide. The supervisors and neighboring towns have urged Eureka to think twice before approving the project.

"If you have a county with 125,000 people that is stagnant and you add 180,000 square feet of new retail, where is that business going to come from?" asked Keith Breskin, city manager of neighboring Arcata. "Other businesses are going to get hurt. Eureka benefits, but we lose."

Build Wal-Mart on the port, opponents also warn, and you will end the dream of building a shipping terminal here that will bring in high-wage jobs, give the port a focus and give the town a sense of purpose. You will surrender to a future of low-wage jobs in retail stores, fast-food restaurants and cheap motels.

After years of delay, dredging of the bay has finally gotten underway and is expected to be completed this winter. It will allow 80% of the cargo ships sailing the seas to enter Humboldt Bay.

Eureka has a deep-water port that could handle the ships. It also has the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, which was shut down by federal officials last November for safety violations. The federal government recently agreed to release $10 million to $12 million to help repair the rail line, which runs from Arcata in Humboldt County, along Eureka's port and south to Schellville in Sonoma County.

A marine terminal, port boosters argue, could capture overflow from the busy Oakland and Los Angeles ports.

"Now that we are going to get the railroad back and the harbor's going to be finished, why should we waste a beautiful piece of real estate on the deep-water side of the bay for a retail business that brings in lousy jobs?" asked Strickland, a marine terminal supporter. "What we need is good jobs that will allow our children to stay here and buy a house someday."

Plan's Backers Blame Small Business Owners

Wal-Mart supporters argue just as passionately that opposition to the retailer comes from local small business owners who are fearful of competing with the store and from people who just can't let go of the past to face up to the North Coast's new reality.

"I would love to see my grandkids stay here, and they are not going to stay here living on pipe dreams," said Kay Peake, who used to own a commercial fishing boat out of Humboldt Bay. "We have a lot of dead and dying businesses and it is a shame to see them, but we have to go on to the next thing."

After World War II, one of two jobs in the county was in the lumber industry, and the North Coast fishing fleet produced half the state's salmon catch. Today, the lumber industry accounts for less than 8% of the county's jobs, and less than 5% of the state's salmon catch comes from the North Coast.

Flemming said she is taken aback by the visceral hatred many of the project's opponents have expressed toward Wal-Mart.

"I just believe that those people have as much a right to do business in this town as any other business," said the Arkansas-born mayor. The only time I've seen this tone before was in the South."

The denunciations of Wal-Mart and what will happen to the town if it is allowed to come in, she said, reminds her of racist attitudes in the small town she grew up in.

"I know very well about little, tiny, tiny towns and the desire to keep things the way they were."

Even if Measure J passes Aug. 24, Wal-Mart supporters point out, the retailer still will have to persuade the state Coastal Commission that the project is appropriate in the coastal zone, prepare an environmental impact report and go through several public hearings before it gets a green light to build.

"My next-door neighbor is 100% opposed to Wal-Mart," said Murphy, the pro-Wal-Mart activist. "I tell him, you go down there on Aug. 24 and you vote 'no,' and if it fails, then the public has spoken, it is a done deal. That's all I want, that as a community we should get to decide."

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