Another WalMart: Not good for Frederick or the Golden Mile!

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We have a problem in the City of Frederick. Some of our elected officials may lack a broader vision of our city, and that may leave them especially susceptible to the ever-present influence of lobbying pressures from interests that are not necessarily compatible with the needs of our residents and community.

I never fully appreciated the pervasive and powerful influence of such interests until I got personally involved in the opposition to a zoning change that would enable a third WalMart in the area — a Super WalMart that would, quite literally, be in my back yard.

I was born in Frederick. I live in Frederick, right off Route 40 and the Golden Mile. And I work in Frederick. Shortly after I first heard about the WalMart, and the proposal to change the zoning to accommodate them on the Frederick Town Mall site, I set up an online petition in opposition to the zoning change. I’d never done anything like that before and had no idea what to expect. I was surprised when the petition received more than 1,500 signatures.

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When my initial experience raised concerns about how well our elected officials were listening to citizen’s concerns about this proposed change, I realized I needed to do more than just encourage people to sign the petition. Among other things, that meant doing research, attending public meetings, and setting up a Facebook page and email list to help keep people up-to-date about the process.

Some Background

The current land owner of the Frederick Town Mall site purchased the property in the early 2000’s with the intent to redesign and expand what was offered at the location. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. Gradually, the businesses in the mall were forced out, after being moved to month-to-month leases under the expectation — or pretense — that the site was going to be renovated. The plan described a mixed-use solution for the property, including retail, along with both office and residential development.

At the request of the property owners, the City of Frederick changed the zoning to support the plan, which was also compatible with the city’s evolving plan for the entire area.

When the national economic downturn occurred, however, and the markets for retail and residential development collapsed, the plan was shelved.

goldenmilesmallareaplanDuring this period, through a lengthy and thoughtful process, designed to include substantial participation and input from citizens and community organizations, the City of Frederick completed the Golden Mile Small Area Plan. The impressive, lengthy and detailed plan established a vision with guidelines intended to rejuvenate the Golden Mile

From the summary:

“The Golden Mile Small Area Plan is intended to provide the general blueprint for future development and redevelopment along the U.S. 40 commercial corridor on the west side of Frederick. In order to accomplish this vision, seven principles were identified the core values for new investment on the Golden Mile. They are: Walkable, Connected, Vibrant, Safe, Attractive, Complete and Sustainable. It is the intent that these principles will figure prominently into new development proposals and that this Plan will be consulted when designing new and infill development.”

Where We Are Now?

The ink was barely dry on the Golden Mile Small Area Plan, which was adopted and approved only six months ago, on January 17, 2013, when the company that owns the mall property requested another zoning change intended to accommodate a Super WalMart on the property. Many residents have highlighted the fact that the requested change is not in keeping with the Golden Mile Small Area Plan, noting that only modest cosmetic features have been offered to address the values and principles in the plan.

WalMart has not stood on the sidelines in this process. The world’s largest retailer launched their own well-funded, public relations campaign, attempting to show how they can meet the requirements and goals of the plan.

WalMart says it will adhere to the plan with an “accommodating commercial, retail and office development that provides local residents with employment opportunities, goods and services, creates a destination for visitors, enhances the image and appearance of the Golden Mile and the City of Frederick and increases tax revenue.”

Quoting part of the plan, however, does not make their proposal compatible compatible with the Small Area Plan that has been carefully established for the area.

Certainly, by many measures, WalMart is extremely successful at what they do. But, in a variety of ways, what WalMart wants to accomplish and what the City of Frederick hopes to achieve are not the same thing.

For instance, WalMart argues that the company pays full-time workers an average of $11.91 per hour. But that is a company-wide average that does not accurately reflect the real wages that they pay. In truth, the average starting pay for a WalMart employee is about $8.80 per hour. WalMart can’t really dispute that.

WalMart representatives also claim the company provides good benefits to their full time employees. What that claim omits is that the most employees are hired as part-time workers, in no small part because they don’t received full-time benefits.

Another concern about WalMart is its very aggressive anti-union policies.

The overall effect of changing the zoning to accommodate a massive new WalMart is unknown at best and could have many serious negative effects on the Golden Mile and the rest of Frederick. According to studies published by Forbes Magazine, which examined some 3,000 new WalMart stores, the average store actually generated a net decline of 150 jobs as established local retailers downsized or closed down entirely.

WalMart is touting the jobs they will create here, but growing evidence makes it clear that the local effect can not be fairly measured by the number of new, minimum wage jobs at the WalMart itself.

The property owners, developer and representatives from WalMart are saying they will develop a walkable environment, with a few paths and a small park. But that is Realtor-speak for a patch of open space by the creek that borders the property connecting to the store to the Elmwood Terrace Apartments and Key Parkway to the north.

Of course, there are many questions about what recourse the city would have, when and if WalMart doesn’t comply with all the elements of their cosmetic offerings?

Some citizens have wondered how putting a small park behind a WalMart, connecting to an area that has struggled with crime for years now, is going to create a safer environment for area residents? Statistically, studies have shown that crime rates increase when a WalMart is built.

The property owners have argued that WalMart is the only option that has come forth, willing to build on the Frederick Town Mall site. There have been other developers involved in the site as recently as this year, but the property owners have maintained that only a WalMart will revitalize the area. During their community Presentation at the old Bon Ton, they presented a list of companies they say were approached, stating that none of them would come without WalMart. But the information they have provided to the public was not at all conclusive. In fact, most of the businesses on their list say they need more information.

More and better research and outreach would need to be done to support or accept the assertion that WalMart is the only option. Where has our City Economic Development Department been in all of this?

The Golden Mile makes up approximately 50% of the commercial land in Frederick, and more than 90% of city residents live within three miles of the Golden Mile. The median houshold income of Frederick is $60,605 (compared to the average for Washington DC metropolitan area of $78,978). More than 40% of the residents live within one mile of the site have incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. More than 50,000 vehicles travel along Route 40 daily. Before anyone can conclude that only a WalMart will build here, especially given our rebounding economy and area growth, the owners need to demonstrate something more significant than a modest list of companies that already have multiple locations in Frederick.

Alderman Karen Young and others have argued that this debate isn’t about Walmart.

But the city has to make a specific change to make it possible for WalMart to develop on the site. Any change needs to be substantially guided by the small area plan, including the core principles described in it: Walkable, Connected, Vibrant, Safe, Attractive, Complete and Sustainable.

walmartsupercenterThe outcry from the community and other city residents concerned about and opposed to the zoning change is relevant. The majority of the 1,500 petition signatures that come from city residents are relevant. Our elected representatives will make this decision and they cannot avoid the core issues and concerns here by acting as if a massive Super WalMart is irrelevant to their decision-making process.

Contrary to what some officials have suggested, the city is not choosing or dictating what businesses might locate there by deciding not to make a zoning change to accommodate WalMart.

At question is how seriously the city leaders take the small area plan and the lengthy and thorough public process that led to it’s creation. Before the WalMart proposal nobody was arguing that the current mixed use zoning was not in harmony with the plan!

Indeed, this is a zoning issue, but it is not a zoning decision that should be made based on the current (and changing) whims of Rockwood Capital, the property owner. The city already made a zoning change to accommodate their previous plan and look where that got us today.

Many residents who have reviewed the proposal for the site have concluded that it does not meet the principles and requirements of Golden Mile Small Area Plan. The property owners and WalMart have demonstrated that they will say and do whatever they must to obtain the re-zoning and move ahead. Such efforts have included funding a highly skewed and manipulated, self-serving survey of area residents, and hiring another consulting firm to bring in supporters for WalMart, including some businesses that are not in competition with WalMart and would like a site close to it.

Of course, we aren’t supposed to draw any conclusions from the fact that David Severn is the land use attorney representing WalMart and an active member of the Golden Mile Alliance, which has supported the WalMart proposal.

One could point to all sorts of things that should be of concern to people who want and expect a fair and open and honest process. But the bottom line seems to be that WalMart comes to this contested and important issue with years of direct experience in such battles (including all manner of PR strategies and tricks), rafts of lawyers and others to dedicate to achieving their desired results and a bottomless bank account to pay for it.

Neither the property owners or the WalMart representatives live in or care about our community.

They use the same tactics and talking points here as they do in any other community. This isn’t about the City of Frederick for them or about the neighborhood. They don’t care about what makes Frederick special, or about the Golden Mile Small Area Plan beyond what they have to say to get a pass on the Zoning. To the owners and Walmart, city residents and the small area plan are just in the way of what they want to do. If the elected officials who are supposed to be hearing and representing citizens and protecting our interests choose to stand with WalMart instead, there will be no real recourse after we see and experience the negative results of that decision.

We need and deserve better than what is happening. There are alternatives to this plan and what’s needed are the right people with a positive attitude being brought to the discussion.

One thing I have learned in all of this is that city voters are paying very close attention.

Let’s hope this isn’t the legacy our current elected officials leave behind.


More…

On Facebook: Stop Wal-Mart on Rt 40 in Frederick

Change.org PETITION: STOP WAL-MART ON ROUTE 40 IN FREDERICK MARYLAND!

City of Frederick’s Golden Mile Small Area Plan

June 10th Public hearing on conditions for rezoning Frederick Towne Mall site and Conley Farm

The WalMart / Golden Mile controversy in the media

Open a chronological listing of links to news articles, editorials, columns and letters to the editor from the News Post, Gazette other news sources about this issue.

Please note this from the News Archive home page:

Envision Frederick County is compiling an archive of news articles, editorials, columns and letters to the editor, from a range of local and regional publications. The archive will grow to include well more than 1,000 entries, covering the last decade or so.

In other words, the link above will take you to some, but not all of the “news articles, editorials, columns and letters to the editor” about this issue, as we are working to catch up with the past.