By Stuart N. O'Toole
Ordinarily, you’d think the affluent citizens of Orchard Park wouldn’t be interested in having a Wal-Mart in their town, especially since there already is one conveniently located nearby, just over the line in the not-as-posh Town of Hamburg, which probably has a greater number of shoppers who may believe they have a “need” for Wal-Mart. Well, you’d think wrong. Wal-Mart is now taking aim at Orchard Park, that upscale land of Pilgrim’s pride; home of the Range Rover, Ethan Allan patio furniture, and Harry And David home deliveries.
Of course, Wal-Mart’s plan is to abandon its existing emporium near Hamburg’s Seven Corners intersection, with its acres of parking in front of the chain’s typical squat, square building, which is Wal-Mart's usual misguided and outdated approach to development, an approach that likely will be repeated should they gain access to their desired new spot. The current Seven Corners location is close to the McKinley Mall, as well as myriad other commercial enterprises along McKinley Parkway and Southwestern Blvd. There’s a large Tops Market across the street from the existing Wal-Mart. Residents and outsiders alike all know that Seven Corners is a very busy, very complex intersection. The current Wal-Mart location can be reached via McKinley Pkwy, Southwestern Blvd. (also know as Route 20) and Big Tree Rd. (a.k.a. Route 20A). It's a straight shot down 20A from the Village of Orchard Park’s vibrant commercial district. One wonders what the reasoning for a new Wal-Mart location would be. Aside from the existing store‘s proximity to the often-clogged intersection, the current location seems ideal, until you take into consideration the desired new site on Mile Strip Road (Route 179) between Abbott Road and Southwestern Blvd. in the Town Of Orchard Park. A new store would still be convenient to Hamburg's humbler masses, but it offers other opportunities for the merchandising behemoth.
Of course, Wal-Mart being Wal-Mart, the selected new site is lush with trees, quietly beautiful, and completely undeveloped. Besides being oh-so-convenient to entrances and exits to the 219 Expressway, the planned new store would be across the street from another commercial development, Quaker Crossing, a large, recently expanded, and apparently successful collection of mid-range stores and restaurants. There is a Target, Kohl's, Marshall's, Ashley Furniture, Famous Footwear, and Premier’s Prestige Wines And Spirits, as well as other specialty shops. Wal-Mart is obviously after a big slice of the mid-range sales pie and has, no doubt, put arch-rival Target in their bulls-eye.
However, Wal-Mart fails to realize that its share of those mid-range shoppers will consist of people who don't mind having their nostrils assaulted by the smell of greasy hot dogs and stale popcorn when they hit the doors for the “Wal-Mart experience” in order to save a few pennies on toilet paper and cortisone cream and all those other delightful products which fill the millions of containers on thousands of ships from China and southeast Asia - many of said products available even more cheaply at the various “dollar” stores.
Also on the prospective Wal-Mart side of the road, just down the pike at the corner of Abbott Rd., is the Southtowns location of the decidedly upscale Jenss Décor And Reed's Jewelers. (Welcome Wal-Mart shoppers?)
Given the present economic slowdown, retail malaise, and the excessive retail capacity in the Buffalo area, it seems certain that the Wal-Mart Seven Corners site, if abandoned, would remain a deserted, derelict “hangar” set in an inevitable weed-sprouted and litter-strewn asphalt eyesore and left for the Town of Hamburg to deal with.
At Quaker Crossing the parking lots were wisely placed in the center of the development with a row of structures along Mile Strip Rd. which screen the parking area from the highway. There’s also allowed some green space and plantings of colorful trees and shrubs, something the Wal-Mart execs wouldn’t find cost effective and may even consider unappreciated by their patrons toward whom they seem to have a cloyingly patronizing, if not somewhat contemptuous attitude.
In addition to the general chaotic ugliness of any Wal-Mart location, there’s the very legitimate question of increased traffic. Quaker Crossing generates a significant amount of traffic because, in addition to the shops and restaurants, there’s also a popular 18-screen Regal Cinema. Mile Strip Rd. has four traffic lanes, in addition to left turn lanes. The posted speed limit is 45mph, but there’s also a stretch of highway at 55mph. Entrances and exits for the 219 Expressway are also present. The traffic light at the access to Quaker Crossing is one of those classic suburban “cigarette-long” signals, and it can be quite surprising how much traffic can quickly back up in both directions on Mile Strip even in mid-day. The addition of another access road (for Wal-Mart) on the other side of Mile Strip, whether directly across from the QC access or anywhere in the general vicinity, will be a recipe for yet another suburban SUV jam and set the stage for a tragi-comedy of rear-end and t-bone collisions. A new Wal-Mart would create a breeding ground for a veritable maelstrom of vehicular mayhem.
The standard traffic, environmental, and adding-to-the-competition arguments against yet another Wal-Mart aside, there are many other controversial, downright objectionable, and outright misleading practices which the world’s largest retailer appears to utilize to fatten its bottom line and obscenely swell executive and Walton family incomes and prerogatives.
In a county where the elected officials continue to hang the responsibility for their fiscal idiocy and irresponsibility on the too-convenient hook of Medicaid, we have Wal-Mart's notorious reticence to provide decent medical coverage to its employees. In a series of advertisements they ran last year, the company trumpeted the fact that they were providing medical coverage to over 100,000 employees. This amounts to approximately only 10% of their massive workforce. The ads failed to mention that much of that coverage is for individuals only, because most of their employees can't afford the family coverage. This means that the families of those employees and the hundreds of thousands of others are either without coverage or dependent on various state Medicaid programs. Guess who pays for that while the Waltons jet around the world to various residences on private jets? That particular campaign of disinformation didn't appear to last too long since even their supporters probably realized was total bunk.
Wal-Mart has lost some battles - one right here in the Buffalo area in the Town of Aurora. Perhaps one of its hardest fought proposals for a “super-size” store in an urban/suburban area was fought in the civic offices and streets of the struggling community of Inglewood, California, which is a community that abuts Los Angeles.
This has some relevance to the local situation. The Inglewood contretemps didn’t follow the older pattern of Wal-Mart attempting to finish off a rural town's home-grown and smaller national retail outlets, but actually represented an attack on an urbanized “suburban” commercial strip in the midst of the mind-boggling L.A. sprawl.
Inglewood is one of a string of industrial/ residential suburbs that sprawl southward toward the huge Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach where most of the China’s manufactured junk products headed for Wal-Mart enters the country. Inglewood and several other communities were economically damaged by the departure of much of the aircraft industry from the Los Angeles area, the very same aircraft industry that left Buffalo which had been, until after WWII, the U.S. center of the industry. The problems of those communities were exacerbated by the flight of middle-class blue collar workers both white and black, as well as by the general white flight as the black population moved southward from the city.
Over the last several years, Inglewood and the area have experienced a large influx of Hispanic residents and some of these communities now have an Hispanic majority while the African-American population continues to hold the municipal offices. In any event, Inglewood, like many “inner” suburbs of huge metropolitan areas like L.A., has seen the increasing decline of it's retail core due to myriad factors - one of the major ones being the sprouting of big box retailers on the traffic laden boulevards that run through and between them.
As is often the case when Wal-Mart demands to be accepted and have its building plans approved, the usual promise of jobs by the hundreds, increased commercial activity in the area, and more tax revenue were the carrots that were dangled in front of the economically declining and increasingly deprived community. Inglewood city officials, blinded by the promises, initially approved the proposal over the objections of members of the business community and numerous residents. Many cried foul and suspected that the skids had been generously greased. Lawsuits and appeals were launched. Wal-Mart arrogantly assumed the fix - in its favor - was in and the approval would stick. Finally, a voter referendum was mandated, a referendum that Wal-Mart vehemently and vociferously fought having sensed the rising tide of public objection and awareness of the company's pathetic record in other communities. By a large majority, the Wal-Mart proposal went down to a stunning defeat. Wal-Mart packed up its bags of propaganda and deceit and slinked away, apparently stunned that their promises hadn't been believed in a city populated by minorities and struggling with a lack of jobs, declining tax base, and increasing poverty.
Obviously, the demographics and socioeconomic picture in Orchard Park are dramatically different. However, the hunger for tax revenues is probably similar. Some residents believe the town is in need of another high school and what town government wouldn't welcome more property tax revenue? Should Orchard Park actually need the revenue, it would seem there are much better uses for the land rather than erecting more unnecessary retail space.
Now, here’s a message for proponents of Wal-Mart. Let’s say you shop there and save 30-cents here and 89-cents there and perhaps even a couple of dollars on some items; however, don't feel good about yourself until you take a long hard look at your property tax bill or your rent receipt. The building of thousands of Wal-Marts has led to the elimination of thousands of small businesses and the destruction of “downtown” or retail areas of thousands of small, once-bustling communities. And, because the stores are located primarily outside the boundaries of cities and villages, Wal-Mart avoids paying property taxes to those entities in addition to killing its often mom-and-pop (family-run) retail experiences. Tax bases are reduced, not increased, and everyone suffers. Adding to the Wal-Mart problem is the latest wrinkle: the price of gasoline. As Wal-Mart decimates the core of many villages and small cities, it also adds to air pollution, and that‘s not only because it has denuded forested areas. By locating on the periphery of communities, Wal-Mart has added to global climate change. Hundreds of thousands of shoppers across the country who were once able to walk to their local retailers now find it necessary to drive to the nearest Wal-Mart, which, in less-densely populated areas, could be miles away. Another way to save and lose simultaneously, brought to you courtesy of Wal-Mart.
If the good citizens of economically weak Inglewood, proud of their homegrown businesses, can keep out Wal-Mart, then it certainly seems that the well-heeled residents of Orchard Park, which has restrictive building codes in the village itself, can stop Wal-Mart in its tracks. Nobody denies anyone the right to inexpensive shopping. That’s not the issue. The problem is that Wal-Mart sells goods that fall apart made by people who work in Asian sweat shops. These products are retailed in the stores by Wal-Mart employees who receive low wages and, by and large, are without adequate health care and, if they are women, face gender discrimination. Wal-Mart’s predatory practices include abandoning existing store locations for even bigger operations now selling food, much of which comes from China. The high cost of Wal-Mart to American manufacturing workers, farmers, and communities in terms of job losses and monetary setbacks is staggering.
For Wal-Mart, greed is good. For Orchard Park, they have a decision to make that merits common sense and an understanding of the damage that Wal-Mart will do to its community, its image, and its bottom line.
Stuart N. O'Toole will take your emails at Curmudgeonline (at) excite.com.