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Friday 25 July 2003

Wal-Mart in Front Royal

There’s currently no Wal-Mart in Front Royal, which means that you just can’t buy certain things here. We have a K-Mart, but that’s always been awful, and K-Mart’s financial difficulties haven’t helped matters. If you live in Front Royal and you want to buy certain things, you’ve got to drive to Winchester or Woodstock, each about 20 miles away.

The good people at Wal-Mart have noticed this, and it is their intention to correct the problem by building a Wal-Mart store here. I’m in favor of this. While I’ve heard some bad things about how Wal-Mart treats its employees, I think that this is symptomatic of large American companies’ general over-emphasis on the short term, rather than of anything evil at Wal-Mart. In any case, they seem to be able to attract enough employees to keep the stores staffed, so they must, by definition, not be too bad to work for. And Wal-Mart, unlike most American retailers today, seems to understand that the reason for its existence is to sell goods, and that you cannot sell goods unless customers buy them. Wal-Mart goes to a lot of trouble to make sure that customers can buy goods in their stores: their prices are low, many (most?) stores are open 24 hours a day, and things are kept in stock.

All of this seems incredibly simple, but I’m continually amazed at how many people screw up the very basic functions of retail. The other day, in Front Royal’s brand-new Martin’s grocery store, I saw employees shutting down the deli counters and salad bar while there were literally still crowds of shoppers trying to buy things. Mustn’t let customers’ desire to buy things get in the way of your pre-planned schedule!

Anyway, about Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has plans to build a store in Front Royal, plans which are currently being held up by a zoning dispute. Wal-Mart wants to build their store at the intersection of US-522 and VA-55. Here’s an aerial photo of the site:

Proposed Wal-Mart site in Front Royal, VA

Clicking on this photo will pop up a larger version.

The approximate site of the proposed Wal-Mart is shown in yellowish-green with a ‘W’ in the center of the picture (I am not certain of the precise extent of the site, though it’s not larger than this). The red line is US-522, and the blue line is VA-55. The green lines in the upper-right-hand corner are Interstate 66, and the aquamarine blue lines are the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River, just like in the Bob Denver song. The town of Front Royal is just out of frame to the south.

It’s not unusual to find a proposed Wal-Mart surrounded by controversy, but the situation in Front Royal is a little different from the usual battle. Nearly everyone in Front Royal wants a Wal-Mart; but a lot of people don’t want it in this particular location. The Washington Post, on June 10, said:

This time the opposition came from a grass-roots movement, Save Our Gateway, that began organizing a year ago to oppose the rezoning on grounds that the proposed store would snarl traffic, pollute the Shenandoah, increase crime in the area, create safety problems for the elementary school [across the street from the site] and spoil the scenic northern entrance to this 214-year-old town.

Let’s examine those claims one by one, in reverse order.

The Wal-Mart would spoil the scenic northern entrance to town. This one is simply absurd. Front Royal is a nice enough place, but scenic it ain’t. It’s true, the plot where Wal-Mart wants to build is a particularly nice green floodplain, occasionally dotted with almost ridiculously scenic hay bales. But to get to that floodplain from the north, you have to pass the first rank of junk along the river. And after you get over the second bridge and into the town proper, you’re presented with a vista of cheap motels, used-car lots, and gas stations. A very few blocks in the center of town are relatively nice, but nearly everywhere that actual commerce is conducted in town is willfully ugly. Front Royal is, unlike most towns of its size, still a functioning place — the main street is not quite completely given over the antiques shops and potpourri emporia yet; but most of the town was built in a hurry after World War II, and it shows.

A Wal-Mart would likely make things even worse, but it seems that if civic beauty were at all important to the residents of Front Royal, the town wouldn’t look anything like it does today.

The Wal-Mart would create safety problems for the elementary school. How is this, precisely? Cars passing the elementary school generally are already going about fifty miles per hour. The horrible traffic jams that the Wal-Mart would cause might actually improve safety at the school.

The Wal-Mart would increase crime in the area. Well, it would bring people to the area, and crimes are committed by people. More people, more crime. The logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is that we should all live as Daniel Boone is said to have done — moving further into the woods whenever his neighbors got so near that he could see the smoke from their chimneys.

The Wal-Mart would pollute the Shenandoah. Well, yes, but the rest of the town already does pollute the Shenandoah. No matter where you put the Wal-Mart, eventually the runoff from its parking lot is going to get into the river, even if it has to go through a few miles of pipe first.

The Wal-Mart will snarl traffic. Boy, will it. The other complaints are just window-dressing; this is the important one.

If you look at the photo above (or maybe you’d like to pop up the big version now), you will note that the proposed site can be accessed three ways: by a two-lane road from the west, or by a four-lane road from the north and south. Except it’s important to keep in mind that the four-lane road from the north crosses a three-lane bridge, with only one lane southbound. And the four-lane road from the south — from where most of the people around here live — crosses a particularly long bridge across the floodplain that only ends at the southern edge of the Wal-Mart site.

The plan is for the entrance to the Wal-Mart to be on VA-55, the blue two-lane road in the picture. This will mean that nearly everyone going there will have to turn left from US-522 — where there’s no room to add turning lanes of any significant length — and again left from VA-55. Here at least the road can be widened, but it’ll require a major realignment of the existing road; it won’t be a matter of just laying down asphalt.

There’s no way that this site can be made to easily handle the kind of traffic a Wal-Mart generates. Wal-Mart will almost certainly get their zoning approval, though, and build there anyway. My prediction is that, after a few years, Wal-Mart will conclude that the traffic jams are costing them business, and they’ll move to a better site. This kind of thing would bankrupt most retailers, but Wal-Mart amortizes their stores incredibly quickly, and the scale of their operations often makes it profitable for them to abandon stores for better sites nearby. There are already hundreds of abandoned Wal-Mart stores in the United States; the one in Front Royal isn’t even built yet, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that it’s headed for a similar end.

At the same time all of this is going on, there are two commercial-zoned sites about a mile away, adjacent both to the Interstate and to US-522 at a point where it’s built to handle this kind of development, with four lanes, wide shoulders, a median, turn lanes, etc. If we zoom out a bit from our original picture, we see these two parcels outlined in red:

Proposed Wal-Mart site in Front Royal, VA

The more south-easterly parcel — all these property outlines are only very approximate, by the way — is already under development for a shopping center that includes a Home Depot; the other one is still overgrown farmland, full of scrubby trees. Wal-Mart claims that the site development costs would be prohibitive for them to build north of the freeway. Their preferred site is definitely flatter and would require less work. The site north of the freeway is full of giant rocks, while the floodplain site is, well, mainly silt. It can’t, though, without extensive engineering works — mainly building a wider bridge — be upgraded to handle the kind of traffic a giant Wal-Mart generated and requires. The main difference between the two sites — other than that the site north of the freeway is much better-suited to this kind of development — is that the preferred site is within the Front Royal city limits, and the other one is not. Three members of the Front Royal town council have recused themselves from voting on the matter, and three out of the four remaining support the store.

The current Front Royal town council would, were the matter to come to a vote today, approve the zoning. The one unrecused member who’s opposed to the project, though, has been deliberately missing votes on the matter, thus denying a quorum. Next up: an attempt to sue the other members of the council out of office.

There’s no politics like small-town politics.

Posted by tino at 23:28 25.07.03
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Regarding: “In any case, they seem to be able to attract enough employees to keep the stores staffed, so they must, by definition, not be too bad to work for. “

Same for child-labor sweatshops and prostitution. People keep signing up for these jobs, so, by definition, those jobs can’t actually be too bad.

But with all due respect, YOU don’t do those jobs probably and the only difference is … what? A socio-economic birthright that gained you appropriate education and manners that allowed you to fit in for the better jobs. So those Wal-Mart jobs ARE “too bad to work for”. It’s just that my current “definition” of that is different than if I had nowhere else to go.

Posted by: at October 5, 2003 01:10 PM

I wish you’d left a name or address because you bring up a good point.

Yes, I don’t work in a Wal-Mart or in a sweatshop for a variety of reasons. I have knowledge and skills, partly because of, as you put it, my ‘birthright’.

But a lot of people take these jobs because they’re the best jobs they can get. Someone who works at a Wal-Mart, I’m willing to venture, works there because that’s the best job he or she can get. If he or she could get a better job, he or she would.

Who am I, and who are you, to tell them that they can’t perform this work?

Would it be nicer if all the Wal-Mart and sweatshop work of the world could be performed by robots, and the erstwhile Wal-Mart and sweatshop workers ensconced in nice offices with carpeting and piped-in music? Sure. But that’s not the alternative we’re presented with. For a lot of these low-skill people, the alternative is to work in low-value jobs like those at Wal-Mart, or to not work at all.

Posted by: Tino at October 5, 2003 03:06 PM

If I had seen this site earlier, I would have responded to “tinotopia” sooner. “Tino” dismisses some of the common complaints levied against having a Wal-Mart at the proposed site located at the intersection of Rt.55 and 522. I’d like to react to “Tino’s” response to these each of these complaints:

(1) Wal-Mart would spoil the northern entrance to the town—-“Tino” dismisses this claim by pointing to some shabby sites in the immediate vicinity. I would argue that the proposed site in question is situated in a beautiful area which offers a breathtaking view of the Blue Ridge mountains, the Massanutten mountains, and the Shenandoah River; it’s an area that teems with wildlife (deer, foxes, and hundreds of geese that flock to the wetland areas on the flood plain. “Tino’s” argument seems to be that, given there are some visual blights in Front Royal, we might as well go ahead and continue to degredate the community with a large retail complex on the proposed site.

(2) Wal-Mart would create safety problems for the elementary school—Again, “Tino” dismisses this complaint by stating that cars whizz by the school anyway, and perhaps a Wal-Mart would slow down traffic. I grant that cars do go fast in that area during rush hours (6:30-8:30 AM, and 4:00-6:00 PM). However, the children are released from school from 2:30 to 3:00 PM. I cringe to think how they are going to negotiate going home with all the traffic that will be associated with the huge retail complex. The other concern, of course, is that with retail stores (Wal-Mart and ancillary outlets) directly across the street from the school, the children are going to be tempted to explore, subjecting themselves to personal safety concerns.

(3) The Wal-Mart would increase crime in the area—“Tino” indicates that crime is an inevitable consequence of having more people and the only way to avoid this is to live in a rustic area. The real concern here is that such a large retail complex would be located adjacent to a residential subdivision and directly across the street from an elementary school. I can’t ever recall seeing a Wal-Mart located in such close proximity to either a subdivision or school. This is not a trivial concern given that a neighboring community (Woodstock) reports that over a third of the calls made to the town’s police department are related to Wal-Mart.

(4)The Wal-Mart would pollute the Shenandoah—“Tino” says the Shenandoah is already polluted and that no matter where a Wal-Mart would be situated, pollution would occur. There are ways to dilute and deflect pollution. Wal-Mart plans on constructing “holding ponds” to capture surface run-off. These holding ponds will be located on the flood plain. If these holding ponds had existed last September, all the toxic wastes collected would have flowed into the river during the storm we had then. There’s also a question as to what procedures would be followed to prevent these stagnant ponds from being breeding grounds for mosquito-bourne diseases.

(5) The Wal-Mart will snarl traffic—“Tino” agrees that this is a legitimate concern—that, basically, there are geographical and infrastructural constraints that preclude any way to alleviate potential traffic problems. I might add that Wal-Mart’s “Traffic Model” was based on a traffic count taken during mid-week in March, as opposed to a weekend during a busy season such as fall when tourists flock to the area. Also, this traffic model was constructed in a vacuum, ignoring the imminent presence of a large retail enterprise and residential complex further north of town, both of which are going to generate additional traffic.

I’m afraid that the town council has relied on Wal-Mart for its information, its data, and its language when making its decision to approve Wal-Mart’s request to rezone this property. Wal-Mart’s mantra of more jobs and more sales tax revenues is specious (there are alot published studies that show that Wal-Mart has a devestating impact on the economy of small towns). And, as “Tino” indicates, Wal-Mart can easily abandon a store, leaving a community with a white elephant.

Posted by: Phillip at February 11, 2004 11:33 PM

wal-mart would deffinitly be a good choice for front royal. ppl who dont have jobs could apply for one and the sweatshops were in the past, i think times have changed, wal-mart would be just like working at a k-mart. i live on duck street and i could get there in a jiffy. and the school kids have busses to ride home, there not walking in the road to get home. for the ppl who dont want it isay to you shut up. this would make the economy better.

Posted by: Renee at April 3, 2004 11:45 AM

Hey I say bring on Wal-Mart I am tired of going to Winchester and Luray EVERY weekend my son will start school here soon and I would like my money to stay here but I cant seem to find all these wonderful stores that have everything we need on main street like groceries for one or clothes or school supplies all I have ever seen is antiques and pottery while some of the stores are nice. I have lived here all my life and I hate trying to shop here K-mart is a joke the dollar stores are a joke what else do we have people need to get over the small town view of things I used to work in a position where I had to do upkeep in town and one of the places I mowed was at Riverton well no one said anything when dead animals were there or trash or any other junk I had to pick up because someone just tossed something out the window I love how now every one is so anti building anything unless it directly benefits them if you people think it is so great to work in Front Royal go get a job with the town and when you make $8.15 an hour to bust your butt let me know then how you love your town and the people you work for how many people does Wal_mart employ? if they are so god awful why are all those people there? and if any one wants to know I am not a older person but I am 23 years old raising a son by myself (by choice) I am not on welfare or mooching on anyone but I do but my groceries , Clothes and what ever else at Wal-mart

Posted by: Brittany at April 16, 2004 12:14 PM

The reason we moved to Front Royal was to GET AWAY from the urban sprawl that was our life in Bristow. We bought an existing home in a nice rural area and had hoped to live there through retirement. It’s obvious to us now that given another 3-5 years we’re going to be in the middle of a congested mess once again. How sad.


Posted by: at July 5, 2005 02:33 PM