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Wal-Mart Racing to Derby

Local Matters


Published September 14, 2005 at 2:10 p.m.

Derby--Get ready for yet another battle in Vermont's ongoing Wal-Mart war. Developer Jeff Davis, of Burlington-based J.L. Davis Realty, has announced plans to build a Wal-Mart in Derby, and the state's anti-sprawl groups are gearing up to oppose him.

Davis developed the Wal-Mart at Taft Corners in Williston, and is seeking permits to build one in St. Albans. He's partnering with Greg Fleming of Fleming Management Group in Derby to bring the big-box retailer to the Northeast Kingdom. At 150,000 square feet, the proposed store would be the discount chain's largest in the state.

The developers presented their proposal at a planning meeting Monday night in Derby. They need state and local permits to proceed. According to a report from WCAX TV, a crowd of over 100 people "overwhemingly in favor" of the plan showed up.

But Steve Holmes of the Vermont Natural Resources Council says his group will challenge the store's permit requests. VNRC also opposes the proposed St. Albans Wal-Mart. On Friday, September 9, VNRC hosted an event called "Festival for a Local Vermont" in a field across from the proposed site in St. Albans. Artisans, musicians and politicians turned out to raise money for VNRC and Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth. The group is also sponsoring the "Wal-Mart Roadshow" at the Sterling College Dining Hall in Craftsbury on September 15. Environmentalist Bill McKibben will speak, and elderly activists the Raging Grannies will sing about Wal-Mart's deleterious effects on mom-and-pop stores.

But Holmes clarifies his group is not anti-Wal-Mart per se. He says it's the size and location of the two stores that worries them.

He points out that VNRC approved three of the chain's four stores in Vermont, which include two 50,000-square-foot stores in Berlin and Bennington, and the 76,000-square-foot store in Rutland. VNRC opposed Davis' 115,000-square-foot Wal-Mart in Williston, and they're fighting the 146,000-square-foot store in St. Albans. "We think Wal-Mart can build and be profitable in this state at a smaller scale," he says.

Jeff Davis disagrees. He calls Holmes "well-intentioned," but says Wal-Mart has "made it clear" to him that smaller stores are not profitable or acceptable. "They know what size works in a market," he says. Davis dismisses Holmes' suggestion that Wal-Mart build a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot store. "They just won't do it," he says.

This kind of reaction has prompted Paul Bruhn of Preservation Trust Vermont to argue that the retailer seems "bent on trying to build these super-size stores that are way out of scale with the market and Vermont."

But Davis claims the company is not inflexible. Originally, he says, "they wanted over 200,000 square feet" at the 18-acre Derby site.

Despite the objections, Davis is confident that his project will receive its permits. But, he says, "It's clearly going to be a slow process."