Walmart welcomed, criticized at meeting
By G. Michael Dobbsnews@thereminder.com
HOLYOKE – Elected officials expressed that they still have an open mind, opponents handed out fact sheets and Walmart representatives stood at stations discussing various aspects of the proposed Holyoke supercenter at an open house conducted at the Log Cabin on Aug. 12.
All of this activity was watched by a small group of private security officers.
The goal of the two-hour event was to answer the questions Holyokers have about the development, which would be located on Whiting Farms Road.
A group of the Raging Grannies seranaded people as they entered the event facility with anti-Walmart songs and a long line of opponents held signs at the driveways.
“We think the project has a lot of thought behind it and large events like this will allow people to feel better [about it],” William Wertz, the director of Communications-East told Reminder Publications.
He added that with landscaping, parking lot lights and a new traffic signal to control motorists, the company hopes to convince people the impact of the store is “not going to be as bad as anticipated.”
In a region still coping with unemployment, Wertz said the supercenter would bring 300 new jobs to the city.
Despite the many people in the room who identified themselves as against the project by wearing stickers, Wertz said Holyoke residents have shown an interest in shopping at Walmart to the amount of $11 million in 2012.
He claimed that Holyokers having to shop a supercenter in Chicopee or Springfield forces then to “drive a long way.”
The key word is “convenience.” Wertz said, “Customers tell me that’s what they are looking for.”
He added that with high gas prices, driving to stores is an issue for shoppers.
Wertz’s associate gave members of the press a handout debunking three of the principal issues that are discussed by opponents: job loss, negative impacts on downtowns and destroying small businesses.
When asked about Mayor Alex Morse’s stance against the supercenter, Wertz said, “Walmart is typically welcomed into a community. With a great majority [of the stores] there is no problem. It’s not usual for a mayor to oppose Walmart.”
City Councilor James Leahy said that while he has an open mind about the project, he does have a “little concern.” He noted the City Council only plays a role in the development if special permits are needed and the Planning Board only has a real influence.
He said there has been a lack of communication to the City Council about the supercenter and he has questions about how the Walmart store would affect the plans to bring a Big Y World Class Market to the city.
City Councilor Linda Vacon was waiting her turn to speak to a traffic engineer about Walmart’s plan to regulate traffic on the already busy Whiting Farms Road. She explained she is concerned how residents will be able to get into and out of their streets with increased traffic and how the addition of more traffic plus a proposed install of a traffic light in front of the store’s entrance will affect first responders. The fire station serving that part of the city is at the bottom of the road near Northampton Street.
Vacon said she has been looking at Sturbridge, a smaller community than Holyoke, on how a Walmart has changed that town and she said she has seen the addition of small businesses. She would like to do more research on the store’s impacts.
State Rep. Aaron Vega said his biggest concern about the store is its location. He explained that other Walmart stores are in commercial areas, such as Memorial Drive in Chicopee, and there are not residential neighborhoods and schools nearby.
Aiding the people opposed to the supercenter was Al Norman, the man who made national headlines two decades ago for helping to lead a fight preventing a Walmart from locating in Greenfield.
He said the company is once again interested in Greenfield, whose downtown business district is still struggling after the recession. He said the larger chain stores on the edges of the city have made a negative impact on the smaller downtown businesses.
Norman maintained the reason Walmart wants to come to Holyoke is about increasing its market share. Massachusetts residents have already seen the demise of Ames, Caldors and Bradlees that he said is due to Walmart.
He predicted that if Walmart is allowed to build within a year many of the stores at the near-by K-Mart plaza will be closed.
Although Walmart disputes the claim that a supercenter doesn’t have a net increase of jobs in a community, Norman charged there would be a net loss.
Walmart does need a 160,000 square foot store simply to be in the Holyoke market, Norman said. He explained that Walmart does build smaller stores with a size of 15,000 square feet.
“That’s a regional facility. It’s simply over-saturation,” he said.
Looking at the various maps and renderings concerning the supercenter Holyoke resident Glenn Sullivan said, “This is a project, not a plan.”
Sullivan said the city lacks in thinking ahead of the impacts a development can make. He wondered if Holyoke Community College or Holyoke Mall had been integrated into downtown if it would have been better for the city.
He asked of placing a supercenter on Whiting Farms Road, “Are we that desperate?”