Taosenos take on Wal-Mart

Backers use populist rhetoric to promote a corporate giant

  • BACKED AGAINST THE WAL: Arsenio Cordova speaks out against a Wal-Mart Supercenter at one of the many meetings being held around Taos, New Mexico

    Megan Bowers

TAOS, New Mexico — Peter Dellaportas, a Chicago developer, has built shopping centers all over America. Now, he wants to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter in this mountain resort town, and he’s funding a public relations battle against an organized opposition of small-store owners, a state grocery workers’ union and environmental lawyers.

“These (fights) to me are what makes life turn, when you can get in there and prove everybody wrong, and at the end of the day the sun is shining on something that everybody likes,” says Dellaportas.

Wal-Mart Supercenters are expanding so fast in urban and small-town America that the retail giant is now the nation’s largest private employer. While supporters of the chain tout new jobs and low prices, environmentalists say Wal-Mart squashes small business, lowers wages and contributes to sprawl.

Here in Taos — where jobs that pay a living wage are few and far between — the Wal-Mart debate is focused on competing visions for the future. One vision is of a service economy that caters to retirees and newcomers; the other is of a town that hangs onto its family businesses and historical character.

Red means go, green means no

Taos already has a regular Wal-Mart, but when the company wanted to build a Supercenter here in 1999, the town council killed the idea by approving a master growth plan with strict zoning codes prohibiting “big box” stores larger than 80,000 square feet. A Supercenter needs about 188,000 square feet to house general merchandise, a supermarket and a pharmacy.

In December, however, Wal-Mart supporters and veteran political organizers from the area gathered about 7,000 signatures on a petition supporting the store. Under pressure, the council ordered town planners to write up a new zoning code that would open the door to the supercenter.

Before approving the new code, the town council ordered a formal survey of voters — and both sides have battled in recent weeks to get their message out. Citizens are besieged with radio and newspaper ads, push-polling telephone surveys and visits from organizers. And each faction wears colored ribbons to jam-packed town meetings. Red means you’re for Wal-Mart; green means you’re against it.

The debate has divided friends and neighbors, and even members of the same family.

“Times have changed, and we want to welcome some kind of industry here for our kids, and for the future,” says businessman Moises Martinez. Martinez, who runs a ski shop here, says too many locals are forced to leave the valley to find work. “It’s a good clean industry,” he says of Wal-Mart.

But Moises’ brother, Paul Martinez, disagrees. Paul runs a clothing shop near the plaza and worries the store will drive smaller retailers out of business. He’s angry at the way his brother and other Wal-Mart supporters have painted the debate in racial terms. Their message boils down to this: Local Hispanics need Wal-Mart jobs, but outsider Anglos want a quaint historic town at the expense of economic development.

Paul Martinez also blasts the Wal-Mart front men for using slogans first coined by farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez: Si se puede, or “yes we can,” and La Gente, or “the people.” The pro-Wal-Mart group is called “La Gente for Wal-Mart.”

“What’s next?” asks Paul Martinez. “I have a dream for Super Wal-Mart?”

The ghost of Wal-Mart past

The populist rhetoric of Wal-Mart supporters doesn’t surprise Gina Janett of Fort Collins, Colo. In 1996, she led a coalition that defeated a Supercenter expansion effort in her town. But Wal-Mart returned in 1999.

“They find local people in the community that support it and then they make like it’s a very popular local issue,” Janett says. “But it wasn’t.”

Developers used a manufactured grassroots campaign, fueled with cash, to sell the store, Janett says, and were allowed to build when voters passed a ballot initiative which overturned the city council’s decision to reject the Supercenter. The opposition was preparing a lawsuit that challenged the ballot initiative, when Wal-Mart supporters brought in their own lawyers. They threatened a countersuit that would have held organizers personally responsible for stopping the project, says Janett.

Janett, who works as a government consultant, says a local grocery store chain has closed down since the Supercenter opened. To Wal-Mart opponents in other communities, she warns, “You’re going against the world’s largest corporation.”

But Fritz Hahn, an organizer in Taos, says more than 300 small businesses and thousands of opponents will fight. They’re supported by lawyers from the Western Environmental Law Center, based in Taos, who are providing free legal advice. They vow to continue the fight until the Supercenter has been defeated: “We’ll challenge it every step of the way,” Hahn says.

The author is a freelance reporter based in Taos, New Mexico.

You can contact ...

      Taoseños Against Wal-Mart Super Store, 505/758-4036;
       La Gente for Wal-Mart, 505/758-2200, ext. 202.
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