Days Like This

To quote Van Morrison, “Oh my mama told me there’ll be days like this.” Why do I write that today? Well, some days the uphill battle of historic preservation feels incredibly steep. Sometimes it’s really hard being a preservationist in heart, soul, belief, and profession. Do you ever feel like that? Maybe you lost a preservation battle that you really believed in? Of course, every day cannot be easy and we preservationists like a challenge, but the big ones can weigh on your heart. Today an ongoing preservation issue gives me a heavy heart.

On Wednesday October 16, 2013, the brand new Wal-Mart opened a few miles outside of historic downtown St. Albans, Vermont. This particular Wal-Mart case began in the 1990s, and has come and gone a few times, fighting Vermont’s Act 250 law, among other issues. The Preservation Trust of Vermont (PTV) did its absolute best to work with Wal-Mart, hoping to have the store site itself downtown in a smaller scale, as opposed to miles away from the existing downtown core in farmland. See the design proposals that the Preservation Trust of Vermont had hoped to achieve. You might expect a statewide preservation organization to be opposed to Wal-Mart. However, that is not the case.  PTV is pro-downtown businesses and responsible growth and development. In other words, focus the development in appropriate areas and spaces.

Vermont is a very unique state, and a wonderful place to live for its scenery, its quality of life, its focus on the local economy, just to name a few. Part of this quality of life is a result of calculated development and land use planning laws that have protected the state from poor, sprawling development. Sprawl has been a threat and continues to be a threat to our downtowns and rural landscapes. In fact, the entire State of Vermont has been listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “11 Most Endangered Places” in 1993 and 2004, both times at risk from an onslaught of big box, sprawling development (see below).

During the 1990s Wal-Mart located three of its four Vermont stores in existing buildings and kept them relatively modest in size. Now, however, the world’s largest company is planning to saturate the state – which has only 600,000 residents – with seven new mammoth mega-stores, each with a minimum of 150,000 square feet. Theses potential new stores may be located in St. Albans, Morrisville, Newport/Derby, St. Johnsbury, Bennington, Rutland, and Middlebury. Wal-Mart’s plans are sure to attract an influx of other big-box retailers. The likely result: degradation of the Green Mountain State’s unique sense of place, economic disinvestment in historic downtowns, loss of locally-owned businesses, and an erosion of the sense of community that seems an inevitable by-product of big-box sprawl. With deep regret, the National Trust takes the rare step of re-listing Vermont as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

With all of this, why does Wal-Mart keep succeeding? Well, it has deep pockets. Obviously. And yes, people want Wal-Mart in their towns. Not all people, but many do, because they believe the prices to be cheaper (which is only selectively true) or because they don’t understand what is at risk when Wal-Mart moves in. And let’s keep in mind, that any big box store can bring up the same issues; this example just happens to be Wal-Mart.

The difficulty we preservationists face is explaining to naysayers that big box sprawl outside of downtown will have negative effects on our local economies. Sure, any store is technically geographically local shopping (as opposed to online), but that is not the true meaning of a local economy. A local economy supports itself, buys and sells good and services made and used within the region, and keep more taxes in the economy. Money spent at a big box store is money not spent at businesses owned by our neighbors. A big box store of approximately 150,000 square feet of retail space is consequently 150,000 square feet of retail space taken away from other businesses. A new store is not going to spout new consumers; roughly the same amount of people’s money will be spent shopping. So where it is spent shifts. Is it all from small businesses? No, of course not. But a good portion of it is.

It is important to remember that preservation is not anti-development or anti-progress or anti-capitalism. Preservationists are pro smart development and land use, and are pro small businesses succeeding. This can be achieved through a variety of ways, but the American typical sprawling big box developments is not the answer, especially when there are other, better options.

The current opinion regarding this new Wal-Mart is that it will bring more people to downtown. Business owners are in favor of Wal-Mart, or at least are of the opinion that since it’s there, they might as well join and encourage all sorts of business. It’s a good attitude. Hopefully the restaurants downtown survive, the small businesses continue to grow, and sprawl does not increase around the new Wal-Mart. Only time will tell.

So, preservationists, what do you think? Will a Wal-Mart located approximately 3 miles outside of a historic downtown have a negative effect on the downtown economy and local businesses? It is worth noting that there is an interstate exit located (practically) adjacent to this Wal-Mart, and customers would not have to drive thru the downtown. The St. Albans Drive-in Theater is located across the street from the new Wal-Mart. (Remember that many drive-ins failed because of the value of their land.) Also, St. Albans is a wonderful downtown with great improvement projects (most recently undergrounding utilities, streetscape improvements, building improvements, etc.). Are there examples of Wal-Mart or any similar big box store locating so-close-yet-so-far from a historic downtown and both surviving? I hope, for the sake of St. Albans, that this situation is the exception to the rule.

And that is why I have a heavy preservation heart today. Sometimes getting people to see in the long-term view and understand just how special their town or state is seems like an uphill battle. What’s your latest preservation heartache? Care to share? And what do you think about this one?