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North Adams Residents Raise Questions About Walmart Plans

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Sandra Thomas takes questions on Saturday at a community meeting at the Cup & Saucer about the proposed Walmart Supercenter as Sharon Wyrrick and Anthony Israel record them.
Updated 2:39 p.m. with photos and further information and typo fixes.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — More than two dozen people gathered at the Cup & Saucer on Saturday morning to express their concerns over the construction of a Walmart Supercenter a few miles from Main Street.

"It's not necessarily that we're against Walmart," said city resident and meeting organizer Sandra Thomas. "It's about what's best for the community."

Walmart is proposing to build a 160,000-square-foot Supercenter at the city's former gravel yard on Curran Highway across from H. Greenberg & Sons.

The news prompted the formation of the Facebook group "Stop the Walmart Super Center in North Adams" that has nearly 300 members; proponents followed with their own group, which has about the same number. (The news also made the "Battleblog" at Wal*Mart Watch.)

Several attendees said they didn't want this to become a divisive issue in the community. Posters on local media boards are calling it a matter of newcomers versus old-timers. Yet Saturday's meeting included both and Joshua Field, who started the Facebook group, is a local artist as well as a Berkshire native.

A new Facebook group is being formedWeb site is being created , North Adams First, to better express the group's focus on what the development will mean for the city rather than a "War on Walmart," as the local paper described it.

"I haven't made up my mind," said Edward Sederbaum. "That's why I'm here."

The attendees' primary concern was whether the big-box retailer's plans were "a done deal."

"I don't see how this could be a done deal if there hasn't been announcements of meetings," said fellow organizer Anthony Israel, noting the Planning Board's review will be open. "It's an opportunity for people to have input; it's an opportunity to hear what everyone has to say."

The Planning Board was expected to take up the issue at it's December meeting but that has reportedly been postponed until January because of the amount of information filed with the application. Mayor-elect Richard Alcombright, who attended the meeting, said the proposed lube and tire center has also been removed from the application.

The Supercenter will still include a grocery, pharmacy and large garden and electronics departments.

The project will also have to go through the state's Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act process and other city boards and commissions, said Alcombright. "I can't imagine that if it passed the Planning Board in January, that you would see a shovel in the ground for 14 to 16 months."

He also said the project (being developed by Ceruzzi Holdings of Connecticut and also including a Lowe's) will create a destination point; he felt it was far enough away from Main Street that the downtown could continue to be a separate destination point.

Some the questions aked at the meeting.
Building out around the proposed plaza would be difficult — "If you go north, it's all wetlands, and you can't go south past where Lowe's will be" — that should create a "contained development" and prevent sprawl, he said.

The group brainstormed a list of questions they felt should be answered about the project.

A lot of them surrounded basic information: What taxes would Walmart pay? How would those funds be allocated? What will happen to the current 97,000-square-foot building? Will it continue to pay taxes on that?

Others touched on the Supercenter's impact on the smaller chains such as Staples and Big Y, job creation, job stability, future development, economic planning, how to maintain the vibrancy of the downtown, environmental issues, quality of life and the larger issues of the massive discounter's global impact on consumerism, food production and distribution, labor and competition.

Several pointed out that Walmart could be an engine for growth and that its lower prices would affect local prices, particularly food. The Northeast averages higher food prices that much of the rest of the country.

Topics brought up were assigned to volunteers to research further. A list of the questions will be posted online later. (We'll provide a link or post them here when that happens.)

Field thought it was a good, respectful conversation."I'm really pleased that we were able to voice a lot questions," he said. "It demonstrated people are interested in getting involved."

Alcombright, who ran on a campaign of community involvement, said the group's activity is something his administration wants — and will have to deal with.

"I'm both scared and excited," he said, "but more excited than scared."

Update Monday, Dec. 14, 2009: Walmart attorney Jay Sabin posted on the We Want a Super Walmart in North Adams! Facebook page on Sunday night:

"I am the lawyer representing the developer and applicant, Ceruzzi Properties. We have asked to postpone the opening of the public hearing before the Planning Board relative to my client's Application for Special Permits from this Monday, December 14, 2009, to the Planning Board's regularly scheduled meeting in January ...(January 11, 2010). There will be no action taken on our Application on Monday, December 14, 2009 so if you were planning on attending, please take the night off and hopefully we will see you on January 11, 2010. Thanks to all of you for your support and thanks in particular to Miriam Serrano."

Questions raised by attendees (courtesy Wyrrick):

Overarching questions:
How much leverage do we have in this relationship?
What might be the unintended consequences of a Walmart Supercenter?
Will an anti-Walmart protest be divisive?
Why do we need this store? Why does Walmart think we need this?
Are our questions specifically for Walmart or any big box store?
What are the venues for public input and participation for this project?
What will the Superstore give us that we don’t already have?
What can Walmart do for us?
What is the relationship of the project to any Comprehensive/Master Plan?

General questions about or for Walmart:
What are the differences between the existing Walmart and super store?
Is the super store a "magnet" store (i.e. draw other big-box stores or retail)?

What other super stores are, or are being planned, in adjacent communities?
Where do these projects stand if in process?
Will a Walmart super store be competition for other existing smaller box stores (such as Staples)?
What are our resources for evaluating/asking questions of Walmart?
How are other areas with Walmart/super stores faring?
Will/does this Walmart have a "dead peasant" clause in its insurance policy?

Employment issues/job and labor related questions/services:
Will local labor be used in construction?
Is there any data on the impact of the current Walmart on jobs, etc.?
What are Walmart's policies/employment standards for full- and part-time employees?
Will employees at the current Walmart keep their jobs?
What will employee benefits actually be?
How many entirely new jobs will there be at the super Walmart?
How many people in North Adams need employment or are underemployed?
How many people are employed at existing grocery stores?
What will be the net gain or loss of employment (if other businesses close)?
How many jobs will be transferred from the existing WalMart to the super Walmart?
What do we know about labor practices at our locally-owned businesses?

Services and transportation:
What is the traffic impact of the project?
What will the transportation issues be for those without cars or with other difficulties if grocery stores nearer to where they live close down?
How will new super Walmart impact services – especially the Fire and Police Departments?

Local business/development/planning issues:
What are concerns of local business owners in regards to a super Walmart?
How will the new super Walmart affect the diversity of food access/markets/stores? How will it affect local farms and farmers, the local food system?
What structures can be put in place to encourage/ensure Walmart's reinvestment in community?
How much is the current economy contributing to the appeal of the project than if the economy was better right now?
What other development plans for the town and/or the site have been or are being pursued?
Is the opening of Lowe's and/or future development affected by the opening (or not) of the super store?
How can we maintain downtown vibrancy if there is movement of retail away from it, such as out on Curran Highway?

Walmart site issues:
What will happen with the existing site?
The existing Walmart site has sewer problems, how will this impact its future development when vacated?
Might the existing site be renovated for the super Walmart rather than vacated?
Is there any way for Walmart to locate in town?

Environmental issues:
What impact will the influx of additional shoppers and/or resident from other areas have?
Are there environmental issues at the new site?
What are the local, regional, global impacts? What are we really doing?
How could we create the same number of green jobs (as Walmart jobs)?

Questions for City Hall:
Is the super Walmart project a done deal?
Whose decision is it? Mayor? Council?
What is the process for reviewing and approving such a project?
What city offices/boards need to review the application?
What state offices have to review the application?
Why is the general public only finding out about the project now?
Can the city of North Adams have an impact on employee policies at Walmart?

Tax questions:
Is North Adams paying or giving tax benefit/break?
Net gain or loss with taxes if businesses close?
How will additional tax money be allocated?
Will taxes continue to be paid on existing site at existing rate?
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