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Wal-Mart naysayers will reunite in its aisles

By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2002

Geez, it's only a Wal-Mart.

Geez, it's only a Wal-Mart.

An east Pasco businesswoman friend of mine approached me a few months ago with the look of someone who had just received bad news from a medical lab, a message from the IRS about an audit, and word that her stockbroker had sunk the whole wad in Enron.

"Wal-Mart," she said, biting her lower lip, "is coming."

Now I read almost daily letters in the Times' Hernando County edition forecasting that the construction of a Wal-Mart supercenter (the same tragedy targeting east Pasco) will destroy Life As We Know It on this planet. And, they say, all of those responsible for allowing a new business to locate in a county starved for business and, more importantly, seriously starved for tax revenue are unwitting dupes of the evil forces that want to rule the world by using the electronic chips implanted in our foreheads to deliver messages that can only be heard by playing rock music backward.

To hear the naysayers talk, the threat is something akin to the bubonic plague, Ebola virus and a Hillary Clinton nude centerfold all wrapped into one. Any day now, I expect to hear that the mayor of Inglis has banned Wal-Mart from town by splashing bat's blood all over the fence posts she has already used to ban Satan.

Here's what's going to happen.

Both Wal-Marts are going to open, and, within a month, most of the people griping about them will be shopping in them.

Dade City went through the same horrors back in the early 1970s when another grim threat raised its ugly corporate head -- McDonald's. There were those who said it would destroy forever the city's unique charm, damage the area's youth more than the pool hall in The Music Man and, mark my words, would place us on the slippery slope that would lead to Wendy's, Taco Bell and a Republican majority of registered voters.

The city survived and, in fact, was recently named a "romantic hideaway" by the state of Florida's official tourism marketing corporation.

My businesswoman friend has the most logical, albeit a little self-serving, objection.

Her business hires a lot of young people who need to have at least minimal work skills, presentable appearances and a willingness to show up when scheduled.

Wal-Mart will pay more and provide fringe benefits she can't.

I hated to be the one to break it to her that competition is considered key to the operation of our economic system.

That school of thought is the same reason that Dade City's leadership, dominated by citrus growing and processing interests, spent decades opposing growth in any form. Industries that depended on migrant and minimum-wage labor felt threatened by any place radical enough to offer a living wage and even minimal fringe benefits.

The other primary objections seem to be that Wal-Marts are (allegedly -- I'm not getting into that fight) ugly and that they will generate a lot of traffic.

If architectural excellence in the business community is going to be a concern, then I think it's high time that all of us on Florida's West Coast, with the possible exception of Longboat Key, admit that that ship sailed a long time ago -- and sank in the harbor.

And although massive ventures like that tend to attract traffic, the truth is that traffic is created by population growth, meaning the arrival of a lot of the people who are currently wetting their pants over the proposed supercenters.

It is sad that the days of all of our retail needs being met by mom-and-pop businesses that look like Norman Rockwell paintings have gone the way of music with understandable lyrics and doctors who make house calls.

Frankly, the grocery store where I shop could use a little competition. It went from a grand-opening furor ballyhooing gourmet coffee service, a salad bar and anxious employees standing in the aisle to greet you when you rolled up with your basket to, well, none of the above.

Believe it or not, we as a species face worse threats than Wal-Mart.

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