Big furor over little supercenter

Wal-Mart’s plan to build in Pagosa Springs gets mixed reaction


Pagosa Springs residents Lucille Stretton, center, and Barr Bentley jockey for space outside the town’s fairgrounds where they were letting people know how they feel about Wal-Mart’s plans to build a supercenter there. “It’ll save us some gas from having to go to Durango,” Stretton said. Shelley Roman, left, favors it, too. Bentley objects to the retail giant’s business practices. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Pagosa Springs residents Lucille Stretton, center, and Barr Bentley jockey for space outside the town’s fairgrounds where they were letting people know how they feel about Wal-Mart’s plans to build a supercenter there. “It’ll save us some gas from having to go to Durango,” Stretton said. Shelley Roman, left, favors it, too. Bentley objects to the retail giant’s business practices.

PAGOSA SPRINGS – Wal-Mart on Thursday unveiled design plans for a proposed supercenter in this small town 60 miles east of Durango. But many resident have asked the giant retailer to stay away.

“I don’t think they make a good neighbor,” said Juanalee Park, a member with Pagosa First, a group formed about two months ago to oppose Wal-Mart’s plan. “I definitely think it changes the whole mountain community feeling.”

Wal-Mart is proposing to build a 93,000-square-foot supercenter at U.S. Highway 160 and Alpha Drive, across from Pinon Lake and the golf course at Pagosa. It would be the smallest Walmart Supercenter in Colorado, said Josh Phair, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Supercenters combine general merchandise and a full grocery section in one store.

By comparison, the Walmart Supercenter in Durango is 189,000 square feet.

Archuleta County has 12,084 residents, with 1,727 of them living in Pagosa Springs, according to the 2010 Census.

No timeline has been set for the store’s opening, but town officials expect to receive a formal proposal in about a month and construction to begin later this year after, if approved. A public comment period will be part of the process. The store will take about 11 months to build, which means it could open by summer or fall 2013.

“We’re moving ahead,” Phair said. “Everything so far has been positive from our standpoint.”

Town officials have been supportive of the retailer. In August 2009, the Town Council repealed a section of its Land Use Development Code that placed strict requirements on big-box stores. Town voters upheld the decision in 2010.

A Walmart here could help stop “retail leakage,” which occurs when residents drive to Durango or Farmington to do their shopping.

An economic development study in 2005 said Pagosa-area residents buy 47 percent of their retail goods outside the area. A large retailer could capture about 75 percent of that leakage and generate about $4.4 million per year in sales-tax revenue, according to the study.

Town Manager David Mitchem did not return a phone call Thursday seeking comment.

But many residents said they are less concerned about tax coffers and more concerned with Wal-Mart’s poor reputation for its labor practices and heavy reliance on Chinese manufacturing.

More than 100 residents filed through the exhibit hall for three hours Thursday at the Archuleta County Fairgrounds to view the design proposals, complete a questionnaire and give feedback to Wal-Mart representatives.

About 10 protesters stood outside the building with signs that read: “It’s not a done deal. Act Now,” “Everyday low wages, always,” “Who cares about Pagosa? Not Walmart,” and “Walmart destroys small towns.”

Inside the Extension Building, Pagosa resident Barr Bentley led a “people’s microphone,” which he used to call out a slogan and willing participants repeated the phrase. The jabs included, “We know Walmart unlawfully obstructs unions,” and “We know Walmart does not care about Pagosa Springs.”

Most people in the building participated, suggesting more opponents attended the event hosted by Wal-Mart than supporters.

Ron Maez, a town planning commissioner, said the percentage of opponents vs. supporters at the open house was not representative of the community at large.

“I think the community is more for it than against it,” he said.

Maez, who owns Shear Talk Hair Salon in Pagosa, said he supports the supercenter.

“I am totally about free enterprise,” he said. “Competition is a way of life.”

Ellie Douglass has lived in Pagosa since 2004. She said Wal-Mart would create jobs and offer cheaper food prices than City Market, the largest grocery story in town

Douglass oversees food purchases for her church’s food bank, which feeds about 30 families every week, she said. She expects that because the corporate retailer has low prices, she’ll be able to feed about five more people per week on the same amount of money if a Walmart.

“I see it as a boon. Others do not, but others are not in the position that I am,” she said.

Walmart has divided residents along unusual lines, said Biz Greene, who moved here in 1999. The way she sees it, multigenerational residents favor the store, believing it will bring jobs and cheap prices. Newcomers oppose it, often because they moved from places with big-box retail stores and were intending to escape that atmosphere in favor of a small mountain town.

“There is no need for Walmart here,” Greene said. “Plus, they’re a disgrace to society, in my opinion.”

It is a similar battle that has played out in small towns across the country, including about 17 years ago when Wal-Mart announced plans to open a store in Durango.

Durango residents feared Walmart store would wipe out small businesses on Main Avenue. But 12 years after opening, there is little evidence it.

Downtown sales-tax revenue has increased every year since Walmart opened with two exceptions: in 2002 during the Missionary Ridge Fire and in 2009 after the nationwide economic recession, said Greg Hoch, Durango’s planning director.

Other chain stores have opened in Durango since Walmart’s arrival, including RiteAid and Walgreens.

Without a Walmart in Durango, more residents would travel outside the area to shop, and the city wouldn’t have been able to afford such things as the Durango Community Recreation Center and a new library, said Durango City Manager Ron LeBlanc.

“The Walmart has contributed to many of the amenities that we enjoy as citizens,” he said.

A Walmart in Pagosa wouldn’t have a significant effect on the Durango’s sales-tax coffers, he said. Rather, it makes the regional economy stronger by creating jobs, LeBlanc said.

“I’m really happy for Archuleta County and Pagosa,” he said. “It’s a plus for the region.”

Pagosa resident Sam Goulds had tears in her eyes as she reviewed Wal-Mart’s design plans. She lives 1½ blocks from the proposed supercenter. She has put her house up for sale, mainly because of the store’s possible arrival, she said.

“I moved here 23 years ago for this town, and you guys are ruining it,” she told a representative who was involved with the design. “Who wants to live behind Walmart? I’m ready to leave Pagosa altogether.”

shane@durangoherald.com

“I’m sad about this because this issue has torn the town apart,” said Pagosa Springs resident Biz Greene, left. Maria Nun, who supports the store’s arrival, tells Greene she disagrees with her. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“I’m sad about this because this issue has torn the town apart,” said Pagosa Springs resident Biz Greene, left. Maria Nun, who supports the store’s arrival, tells Greene she disagrees with her.

Vivian Rader, left, tells Wal-Mart Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations Josh Phair how concerned she is about her home losing value if the retail giant builds a supercenter in Pagosa Springs. More than 100 people went to Wal-Mart’s open house Thursday to hear about and see the store’s plans. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Vivian Rader, left, tells Wal-Mart Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations Josh Phair how concerned she is about her home losing value if the retail giant builds a supercenter in Pagosa Springs. More than 100 people went to Wal-Mart’s open house Thursday to hear about and see the store’s plans.

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