The Cville 5th Street Walmart Story
It was the Spring of 2006 and we had just started pro-local economy group called Trade Local in the Charlottesville area. The group was supposed to support a healthy local economy through public information and positive actions. The initial group of organizers felt there was plenty of oppositional politics already happening and we wanted to do something which was more upbeat and had positive model value, rather than just endlessly trying to stop bad things from happening.
And then we got word that there was a proposed new Super Walmart within easy walking distance from the downtown mall. This threw our careful plans from propositional actions out the window and we went into a crash course about how to stop a Walmart.
Efforts to get local business on the Cville downtown mall were largely ineffective. They either thought Walmart would have little effect on their businesses or they thought there was nothing they could do about the giant arriving next door. The local planning council was largely unresponsive to our letters and concerns about the project, perhaps also assuming the project was inevitable. We were disheartened, but not discouraged. We continued to call people, leaflet on the downtown mall and send out email alerts.
To build the super store Walmart needed a zoning variance on the land they were purchasing. Zoning variances require public hearings, which generally speaking are not well attended. But where local business and government failed, local citizens showed up in droves. On the night of the hearing, the largest city meeting room was reserved and it had overflowed by ten minutes before the meeting was to start. Over 300 locals showed up.
But this is a game Walmart has played many times.
The public speakers got up and many locals spoke in favor of the development. They cited jobs, and tax revenue, and low prices and all the good Walmart would do. Their speak was couched, respectful and clear. There were critics of the project as well, and they slightly outnumbered the proponents for the store, but if you were just listening to the speeches, you would guess the community was fairly evenly divided on the topic.
Taking a risk that he was right, one of our organizers who had secured a spot speaking to the planning council in this hearing threw away his careful prepared speech moments before ascending the stage.
“I have just one thing to say to Albemarle county planning board” He said, and then he turned his back to the officials and spoke to the over 200 people in the crowded room.
“If you are opposed to this Walmart please stand up” Over 90% of the audience rose.
“That is all i have to say to the elected planning board of Albemarle county” It took some minutes to settle down the crowd.
Over the following months, the planning board put more and more requirements on the Walmart development: paying for changes to the traffic pattern, improvements to their proposed parking lot, ultimately requirements for the retail giant to help with low cost housing.
Walmart soon abandoned their plans for a store at this site. The giant walked away.