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Struggling Town Split Over Wal-Mart Plan

Eureka: Store is symbolic in bitter battle over area's identity, economic future.

July 05, 1999|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EUREKA, Calif. — 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.

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