- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

Residents of the Southbridge community outside Dumfries, Va., are trying to roll back Wal-Mart's plans to expand into their tony neighborhood.
"They say it will be upscale, but what does that mean? That they'll serve a latte with their cheap underwear?" said John Dittmer, chairman of the Save Southbridge Coalition, a group of more than 300 residents opposed to the proposed development of a 140,000-square-foot discount store in their village.
Wal-Mart has purchased 25 acres along Jefferson Davis Highway in Prince William County to build a retail store. Should the plans go through, the store would be slated to open in or around December 2003, said Keith Morris, community affairs manager for Wal-Mart's eastern division.
"The whole intent is for it to be an upscale store," Mr. Morris said. "This will not be a typical Wal-Mart that they may have seen in the region for a 20- or 30-mile radius."
But many of the residents of this community, which Legend Properties developed, moved to the region to get away from suburban sprawl and strip malls, and feel like they were misled when they agreed to move into the area 30 miles south of Washington, D.C.
"I would not have purchased my home here if I'd have known that a Wal-Mart was coming," Southbridge resident Lisa Carpenter said. "I don't want that great big blue box marring the entrance to our community. I feel like Legend Properties deceived us."
The land in question has been zoned for commercial use for 15 years. The land is owned by Legend Properties, and homeowners say they were told when they were considering moving into their homes that the commercial property would become a series of high-end stores and maybe a Virginia Railway Express station, none of which has happened.
"We were told as purchasers that it would be like the Reston Town Center, and that they would put upscale stores in there," said Pattress Jackson, another Southbridge homeowner. "In fact, we were told specifically that there would be no Wal-Mart."
Mike Anderson, a representative with Legend Properties and president of the Southbridge project, told the Washington Business Journal on February 16, 2001, that Wal-Mart would not be coming to the region at all.
"Ours isn't meant to be outlet retail," Mr. Anderson said at the time. "It's meant to be more specialty retail. This is more pedestrian oriented walking down the street, watching people go by. It's not Wal-Mart, Kmart, Sam's Club."
Messages left for Mr. Anderson over two days last week were not returned. A secretary said he was in a meeting, and later out of the office and could not be reached for comment.
The reaction in Southbridge is much different from that of Gloucester, a little more than 100 miles south, just outside of Richmond. On Wednesday, Wal-Mart is scheduled to open its largest supercenter on the East Coast 220,000 square feet, or almost five acres and the residents are thrilled.
"We have not heard any opposition to it. In fact, it seems most of the residents are really excited about it," said Ron Peaks, director of codes and compliance for Gloucester, which oversees community relations and development in Gloucester.
The supercenter will have all the amenities of a shopping mall but in one store. There will be a grocery department, and a tire and lube facility. There will also be a nail salon, hair salon, vision center and florist.
It will also have skylights and will employ almost 500 people, compared with the roughly 220 working in the current Gloucester Wal-Mart, which is smaller and scheduled to close at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Mr. Peaks said the only concern he heard was that the traditional big blue signs associated with Wal-Mart might violate the city's sign ordinance, which says only 100 square feet of property can be used by as many as three signs for display. Instead of the numerous gigantic blue signs that are associated with Wal-Mart, the chain agreed to have just one sign, approximately 90 square feet. It reads "Wal-Mart," Mr. Peaks said, without any of the other phrases, such as "Always Low Prices," tacked on.
"I guess a lot of people think of Wal-Mart like 'Field of Dreams,' the Kevin Costner movie: If you build it, they will come," Mr. Peaks said, referring to the traditional big signs. "That might have been the case 10 years ago, and they may have needed a big sign then. But now you know they will come if you build it, even if they don't have all the signs."
Southbridge residents, however, are hoping they can stop the planned expansion. Monday night they are holding an open meeting with what they hope will be representatives of Wal-Mart and Legends to discuss the proposed property, and voice their concerns.
Mr. Morris of Wal-Mart is based in Arkansas. He said his group would be more than happy to meet with the residents, but that they were given insufficient notice so he would not be there Monday. He offered an alternative date, later in the month, but Southbridge residents said that is unacceptable.
"Are you telling me that the world's largest store chain cannot provide a representative to meet with us on two weeks' notice," Mr. Dittmer said. "They want us to meet out in a field at 4 p.m., but we want a public hearing. If we have to go to court, we will ; we do not want a big blue box in front of our community."
There is precedent for communities to beat back Wal-Mart. In the late 1990s residents of North Elba, N.Y., more commonly known as Lake Placid, prevented Wal-Mart from entering their rural resort community. Southbridge residents are hoping to do the same.
But Wal-Mart likes to pride itself on community relations and community outreach, according to its Web site. Mr. Peaks said that in his experience with Wal-Mart the national chain did not ignore the needs of the community and bent over backwards to make the store aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sound.
"I think Wal-Mart has become very sensitive to environmental concerns," Mr. Peaks said. "Everything and anything we asked them to do, they did."


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