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Residents muster up to fight Wal-Mart

They may be the little guys, but the Brighton Bay concerned citizens know they have to fight like the big guys to fend off a supercenter on Gandy Boulevard.

By MELANIE AVE
Published May 3, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - As they ready their slingshots to fight the nation's largest retail giant, the residents of Brighton Bay are a bit hush hush about their strategy.

The official little guys don't want to give away any possible advantage.

But this much is known: They are using experts - not emotion - to keep Wal-Mart from building a 150,000-square-foot supercenter north of Gandy Boulevard, just east of Fourth Street.

They have hired a land use attorney and a Tampa engineering firm to prove why the store would hurt traffic and the environment. They have raised more than $5,000 and enlisted the help of the Sierra Club and the local AFL-CIO. They send out regular e-mail alerts about Wal-Mart's plans.

They have come together as the Concerned Citizens for Gandy Boulevard and have a media spokeswoman, Sonya March, a U.S. Senate candidate last year.

In recent years, homeowners nationwide have taken on retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target using techniques that go far beyond the old grass-roots Not In My Backyard tactics of picketing and petitions, though they have done that, too.

"These days Wal-Mart walks in with their lawyer, their architect, their traffic engineer, their hydrologist," said Al Norman, a foe of big-box stores who in 1993 helped keep Wal-Mart from building in his hometown of Greenfield, Mass.

"The old days of just being able to write a letter or submit a petition, those days are over," said Norman, who edits the Sprawl-Busters Alert, a Web site that helps organize communities against big-box retailers. "Citizen groups have to have the same experts the developers walk in with."

And the battles usually don't end with a decision by city officials. Tarpon Springs residents sued their city after it approved a Wal-Mart in January. In Sarasota, Wal-Mart sued the county after it denied its application for a store. Both lawsuits are pending.

John Grandoff, a Tampa land-use attorney, was hired to fight the Wal-Mart in Tarpon Springs. "It's the only way to win," he said. "It can't just be, "We don't like Wal-Mart or we don't like big-box stores."'

Wal-Mart has already mailed promotional fliers to various neighborhoods in north St. Petersburg reading: A new Wal-Mart: The good life is about to get better . Homeowners were urged to return self-addressed postcards saying, "Yes, I agree. This new Wal-Mart Supercenter belongs in my community."

Wal-Mart spokesman Eric Brewer said the company's research shows a lot of potential customers in the Gandy area and a need for more grocery stores. "It's a tremendous business opportunity," he said.

But not a good one for Brighton Bay, resident Doug Davidson said.

He's hoping the third-party experts, which include the Tampa engineering firm of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, will offer convincing evidence that a supercenter would hurt the neighborhood.

"We're not against Wal-Mart per se," said Davidson, 34. "What we're against is a project of that size on that site."

The residents of Brighton Bay, a collection of homes, condominiums and apartments, meet twice a month to fine tune their strategy. They have raised most of their money by going door to door.

Norman said $5,000 is a good start, but noted the $250,000 Wal-Mart has spent in some communities to fight opposition. "You see these people having a lot of a bake sales to fight the world's largest retailers," he said. "Wal-Mart, with one phone call, can put in tens of thousands of dollars."

Rob Kappes, president of the Sterling Manor Homeowners Association in Brighton Bay, said residents must be as professional as the company they are fighting.

"It's always difficult to go up against Wal-Mart," he said. "They're determined and they have an endless amount of capital."

So far, the Concerned Citizens for Gandy Boulevard are undaunted, working to sideline Wal-Mart at any government level, be it city, state or federal.

In March, the group rallied about 120 people to show up at a City Council meeting wearing bright green stickers playing off the retailer's slogan: Wal-Mart: Bad Neighbors Always .

On June 15, the city's Environmental Development Commission will consider Wal-Mart's plan to build on about 27 acres across from the Derby Lane greyhound race track off Gandy Boulevard. Faced with city concerns about traffic, Wal-Mart has offered to spend millions to widen Gandy to ease congestion.

But any EDC decision will likely be appealed to the City Council.

The retailer also must receive permits from the Florida Department of Transportation to make changes to Gandy and from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The National Marine Fisheries Services, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already have recommended the corps deny Wal-Mart's permit because of wetlands on the property.

Wal-Mart, however, has a chance to address those concerns.

The company has had mixed success in Pinellas County. Residents successfully fought expansion of a Wal-Mart in the Tyrone area of west St. Petersburg and defeated a store planned for 54th Avenue S.

But a new store on 34th Street S opened in January with only a hint of protest.

In 1998, the Lakewood community waged a long battle to keep Wal-Mart from building on 54th Avenue S. The residents persuaded the city's Planning Commission to deny a zoning request. City planners said the area had an abundance of commercial development in the area.

"We approached this whole thing just as if this was a business and we were a corporation," said David Zachem, an appraiser who helped lead the fight. "We knew we were up against heavy odds and a lot of money."

The community hired an attorney and used experts who lived there, like Zachem.

He said the community had an advantage because Wal-Mart needed a zoning change to build. That's not the case for the Gandy store where the property is slated for commercial use.

"We put Wal-Mart in a position they had to prove the change was better for the community," Zachem said. "These are quasi-judicial hearings. You have to have reasons and those reasons have to be supported by data."

Wal-Mart did not appeal.

Norman, the big-box opponent, said that in the last decade he has cataloged 300 big-box stores that have been defeated.

The most successful fights are those where retailers need a zoning change or their plans conflict with neighborhood comprehensive plans.

Regardless, "citizens really have no choice" but to fight, Norman said. "If they don't fight, they'll get stuck with a store that makes absolutely no sense."

--Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 892-2273 or melanie@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 20, 2006, 14:40:28]


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