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A wake-up call on Wal-Mart

06/11/04 12:00AM By Chester Liebs
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(Host) Commentator Chester Liebs reflects on the hot new debate about the future of Vermont's built environment.


(Liebs) Sometimes it takes a wake-up call from outside to recognize a danger. In the mid-1970s an editorial by famed New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable spurred a citizens' crusade to save the 1836 Windsor House in downtown Windsor. The impressive brick structure, with its columned front like a Greek temple, had been slated for demolition for a parking lot and drive-in bank.

Fortunately, the rescue effort was successful, and now, thirty years later, it has become almost routine to save and reuse the architectural wonders of Vermont. Companies who once wanted to tear down old buildings now compete to restore them.

But just two weeks ago, we received another wake-up call. The Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation declared all of Vermont one of America's "11 Most Endangered Places." The media, including the New York Times, carried the story around the world. The specific threat to the state's heritage this time is coming from Wal-Mart. Not content with its existing stores, Wal-Mart plans to blanket Vermont with seven new "super-sized" big-box outlets.

Complaints against Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers are well known. They have turned many historic downtowns into ghost towns or tourist-only places. If one wants some groceries or, say, a microwave oven, they have to drive a $25,000 SUV, powered by expensive Middle Eastern oil, miles out of town, then park on a black-top oil slick so brightly lit at night it can be seen from Mars, to rattle around a giant, retail warehouse where often beautiful scenery or farmland used to be.

The Trust's message however is not to stop Wal-Mart. It recognizes the company's retailing genius has brought thousands of low-cost products to American consumers while providing jobs and tax revenue for local governments. Instead it is urging local citizens and government officials to strike a tougher bargain so that such retail giants do not impose "one size fits all" solutions that can overwhelm communities.

There are already clear alternatives. Wal-Mart has opened smaller stores in existing business districts. One often cited example is right here in downtown Rutland. The chain has also built 64 so-called community friendly "Neighborhood Markets" around the country and is planning more. Way off in Japan, Wal-Mart has even bought an interest in Seiyu stores, multi-story combination food and department stores located in town centers, that can be conveniently reached by bike, train, car - even by walking. But instead of marketing these existing Seiyu stores as community-friendly stores of the future, Wal-Mart just opened its first super Seiyu, 70 miles outside Tokyo. From Asia to Europe super-sprawl is becoming one of America's fastest-growing exports.

Let's hope that Wal-Mart, and similar companies, and the citizens of Vermont and around the world, hear this wake-up call from the National Trust.


Landscape historian Chester Liebs is professor emeritus of history at UVM and founding director of the University's Historic Preservation Program.
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