Hundreds of residents watch proceeding, express opinions on proposed super center
By Michelle Dupler, Daily News staff writer
The fate of the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in Pullman rests in the hands of one man after three days of impassioned testimony and volumes of written comments.
Hearing Examiner John Montgomery closed the public hearing in two Wal-Mart appeals at a little after 1 p.m. Thursday after about two hours of public testimony and closing arguments by attorneys representing the Pullman Alliance for Responsible Development and Wal-Mart. The public also had the opportunity to comment Jan. 13 and Jan. 20, following testimony by witnesses for PARD and Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart submitted its application to build a 223,000-square-foot store and 1,000-car parking lot on Bishop Boulevard in October 2004. Local residents formed PARD in January 2005 to oppose the retail giant’s plans.
At issue in the appeals is whether or not Wal-Mart’s site plan application and State Environmental Policy Act checklist meet city and state laws. PARD alleges the Wal-Mart store will have serious negative effects on the environment, traffic and Pullman’s economy. The citizen group believes the city was wrong to decide the proposed store won’t have a significant impact on the surrounding community.
Both the city of Pullman and Wal-Mart have defended the site plan and SEPA checklist, saying the documents meet all applicable standards.
The only comments Montgomery can consider in his decision must be related specifically to environmental, fiscal and traffic issues.
Hundreds of residents turned out over the course of the three hearing days to watch the proceedings and express their opinions. PARD members and those who oppose Wal-Mart provided a higher volume of testimony because of their role in the appeal process, but Wal-Mart supporters also showed up in strength to let Montgomery know they will welcome the store with open arms. (Bravo Michelle! It is worth noting, however, that the volume of PARD's testimony was enhanced by its repeat nature. Reed, Hosick, Hooks, Hammond, et. al. in the PARD leadership testified at least three or more times.)
Two major issues emerging during the three days dealt with fiscal and traffic impacts from the proposed store.
A cornerstone of PARD’s platform has been the call for an independent fiscal impact study of how a Wal-Mart Supercenter might affect existing businesses in Pullman, including downtown retailers and national chain stores such as ShopKo, Rite Aid and Safeway.
PARD members have cited numerous academic studies that show Wal-Mart tends to drive away other businesses when it moves into a town or neighborhood, including research by Iowa State University professor Kenneth Stone on how Wal-Mart affected rural Mississippi.
John McCullough, the attorney for Wal-Mart, surprised PARD on Jan. 20 by introducing a report by Bill Reid of Portland-based consulting firm Johnson Gardner alleging that about 12 percent of businesses in downtown Pullman would be in direct competition with Wal-Mart. Reid testified he was commissioned to perform the study by CLC Associates, the engineering consulting firm representing Wal-Mart during the application and appeals process. Reid did not inform PARD or the city of the results until the hearing.
Reid’s report stated Pullman’s downtown has evolved over the last 20 years into a niche retail market, meaning many businesses don’t carry the same kinds of low cost, mass appeal items a Wal-Mart would sell.
Reid said local businesses might benefit from the presence of a Wal-Mart because the super center might stem “leakage” of shoppers to markets in Moscow, Lewiston and Spokane. Reid projected Pullman residents spend about $92 million in outside communities that could be spent locally instead. That represents about 49 percent of the $187.9 million Reid calculated is available for local spending.
“Those are dollars not being captured by existing retailers,” Reid said.
Reid also projected a Wal-Mart store would bring in about $500,000 in sales tax revenues for the city of Pullman each year.
Gregory Hooks, a PARD member and Washington State University sociologist, on Thursday questioned Reid’s methodology and conclusions.
“Overall, the Johnson Gardner report minimizes the range of existing stores likely to be harmed by Wal-Mart,” Hooks wrote in a comment submitted to the hearing examiner.
“This stands in sharp contrast to the empirical findings and conclusions reached in peer-reviewed studies currently available.”
Reid conceded at the Jan. 20 hearing that his study does not account for Wal-Mart’s possible impact on public services, such as police or fire, or on social services, such as welfare assistance and Medicaid. Hooks said these represent serious flaws in Reid’s report. He called for the city to commission a third-party study that would address these issues. (I don't remember Bill Reid's exact words last Friday, but Johnson Gardner DID look at public service costs. Look under "Links" to the right for the fiscal impact study. It's on the next to last page. The study didn't look at welfare and Medicaid, as those services are provided by the state, not the City, but it did address wage impacts. That's right above the public service costs.)
The Seattle Times reported Tuesday that two state reports show 3,180 out of about 12,000 (it's actually 16,000) Wal-Mart workers in the state of Washington receive health care through Medicaid or the state’s Basic Health Plan. About 1,800 of those workers are full-time employees. The report didn’t address how many of those employees already were receiving state assistance and did not break down what kind of assistance it is. For example, children with severe disabilities qualify for Medicaid regardless of parental income.
Still, those employees are a drain on taxpayers who are forced into subsidizing Wal-Mart workers (ironic to hear a "liberal" call low-income workers a "drain") , whether they shop at the store or not, Annabel Kirschner said in a telephone interview Thursday. Kirschner also is a WSU sociologist who testified on behalf of PARD on Jan. 13, but could not attend Thursday’s hearing.
Wal-Mart commissioned a traffic impact analysis as part of its application. The report projected an average of more than 11,000 extra car trips on Bishop Boulevard each day once the proposed store opens. PARD members have expressed concerns about the additional traffic, particularly given the store’s proximity to Pullman Regional Hospital, a senior housing complex and two schools.
PARD attorney Brian McGinn, in closing arguments, identified flaws in the traffic study. He cited a lack of consideration of additional traffic during the busy December holiday shopping season (Huh? Has he been here in December? It's a ghost town.) and the failure to include the intersection of East Main Street and Bishop Boulevard in the study.
Wal-Mart supporter Carroll Hayden gave his opinion on the traffic issues Thursday, suggesting holiday traffic is not a significant issue because much of the population of Pullman leaves town during the holidays.
The intersection of Bishop Boulevard and Main Street also is a non-issue in Hayden’s opinion because he doesn’t believe a significant amount of traffic will be coming west from Moscow to shop at the new store. Hayden is not a traffic engineer. (but neither is the PARD attorney)
The next step
Montgomery will have 30 days to wrestle with the relevant issues raised during testimony and in public comments. If he decides in Wal-Mart’s favor, the company will be able to proceed with construction of the store. If he decides against Wal-Mart, the company may be asked to make changes to its application to correct any deficiencies identified by Montgomery.
Montgomery’s decision can be appealed to the Whitman County Superior Court by PARD, Wal-Mart or the city of Pullman.
Friday, January 27, 2006
"Pullman awaits Wal-Mart decision"
From today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News: