Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Pullman businesses owners: Wal-Mart specter not so spooky"

Excellent, FACTUAL article in today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News from Michelle Dupler. The only other thing I would have like to have seen in this article is the fact that Pullman merchants have already been dealing with a Wal-Mart 8 miles away in Moscow for the last 15 years. Any major effects or shakeouts were felt long ago.
Super center hung up in court, but possible arrival has downtown Pullman talking

Wal-Mart became a part of the Pullman landscape without a single inch of dirt being moved.

It’s been on the tips of residents’ tongues for nearly two years, ever since the company announced in October 2004 it wanted to build a 223,000-square-foot super center that would bring a discount department store, grocery store, pharmacy, garden center and tire shop under one roof.

No one knows whether the store will ever be built on Bishop Boulevard. That rests in the hands of Superior Court Judge David Frazier, who is set to hear an appeal Oct. 18 by those trying to prevent the company from coming to town.

Residents have wondered how Wal-Mart will impact Pullman’s burgeoning downtown district, which a few years ago teetered on the brink of economic death.

Members of the Pullman Alliance for Responsible Development — a grassroots group that formed in January 2005 to block Wal-Mart’s efforts to locate in Pullman — have argued in numerous forums that the inevitable result of a Wal-Mart Supercenter will be the exodus of small businesses. They fear empty storefronts will be left in Wal-Mart’s wake.

Most of the downtown business owners say they’re not afraid of Wal-Mart. They celebrate the prospect of the store bringing shoppers and their sales tax dollars to the retail-starved city.

Setting themselves apart

When Debbie Yates opened the Prune Orchard shop on East Main Street in May 2005, she set out to create something unique. She researched other downtown retail stores and what they offered, and then selected products she loved that she knew would be different.

One of the things that sets her apart is selling antiques and vintage items customers won’t find at Wal-Mart, she said.

Offering a variety of items — jewelry, candles, gifts, home decor items, bathrobes and pajamas — was another choice she made, not to compete with Wal-Mart but simply to succeed in a small town.

“You couldn’t sell just one thing in a small town,” Yates said. “You need to give variety and choice.”

As a result, she sees a broad spectrum of customers browsing her store. College students will drop in for candles while their moms might take home an item of vintage jewelry.

Yates does not see Wal-Mart as competition to her store. In fact, she sees the coming of Wal-Mart as an opportunity.

“So many people are afraid of growth, they think it will take away (from downtown),” she said. “It may force us to become better at what we do — provide better service and better products. I look at that as a positive thing.”

That was a lesson Debbie McNeil learned when Wal-Mart moved into Moscow more than a decade ago.

McNeil and her husband co-own Quilted Heart, a shop on North Grand Avenue that sells designer quilting fabrics and supplies. They compete with Wal-Mart by offering higher-grade fabrics, classes and sales staff with specialized knowledge. She knows the people who come into her store and brings a human touch to customer service.

“There’s a social connection you just can’t find at a chain store,” she said.

McNeil believes there is a place in the business market for both the low-price offerings of Wal-Mart, and the specialty goods she sells.

“If I need a particular type of fabric that isn’t a quilting fabric, I’ll go to Joanne or Wal-Mart,” she said. “They have different types of fabrics that I don’t carry. It doesn’t bother me to go there. ... Gas prices are going to affect my bottom line more than Wal-Mart is.”

Planning for expansion

Russ and April Coggins expect they’ll expand their Honda motorcycle dealership if Wal-Mart comes to Pullman.

“When an anchor store like Wal-Mart locates in a town, it brings more customers,” April Coggins said. “It’s 300 people who will have paychecks circulating in town. ... I see it as an improvement to the entire retail business climate in Pullman.”

Pullman Honda, formerly known as LaPlante Cycles, has been in its location on South Grand Avenue, about a block from Main Street, for more than 23 years, April Coggins said. She and her husband have been co-owners for about 13 years and employ six people.

Russ and April Coggins are founding members of Businesses and Residents for Economic Opportunity, a collection of people who banded together in the fall of 2005 to promote growth in Pullman.

The organization believes any company, including Wal-Mart, should be able to locate in Pullman as long as it complies with city and state laws. In particular, BREO members have said they think Wal-Mart will help recapture Pullman residents who are shopping in Moscow, Lewiston and Spokane.

The Coggins sell motorcycles, scooters, lawn mowers, tillers and other garden tools. They also sell motorcycle accessories such as gloves and helmets.

Some of their stock will overlap with Wal-Mart, Russ Coggins said, but he welcomes Wal-Mart because it will give him a chance to capture a piece of the larger retail pie. If customers can’t find what they want at the Pullman Wal-Mart, they might give his store a try. That’s a chance he doesn’t have if they drive to another town to shop.

Falling by the wayside

Ken Vogel is an iconoclast among the downtown Pullman merchants. He is admittedly anti-Wal-Mart because he thinks the retailer represents the death of a way of life he values.

“I say a good Lutheran prayer every night that Wal-Mart goes under in my lifetime,” Vogel said. “I hope to see an evolution back to small-town, independent retailers, an evolution away from the box stores, and an evolution away from the concrete.”

Vogel’s men’s clothing shop is defined by its nostalgia. Classic 1940s swing music bee-bops from speakers. The walls are lined with vintage books and train sets. The shop’s colors are muted and earthy. [He also has a lot of passenger train memorabilia in his shop as well. But people ride on commerical airliners now, not the Great Northern. Nostalgia is only good if your business is a museum or DisneyWorld.]

People have told Vogel they don’t think his store will be affected by Wal-Mart because the merchandise he sells is different, but the Moscow Wal-Mart store already has killed his trade in items like underwear, socks and belts because people buy them cheaper at the big-box store. [What about ShopKo, Ken? They're a box store that sells cheap underwear, socks, and belts also. Any "good Lutheran prayers" aimed at them?]

It isn’t only the direct competition that’s hurting him. It’s getting harder for him to find manufacturers to buy from because they all want to do business with large chains rather than independent stores. It all ties in with the public’s demand for cheaper, disposable goods, he said. [Perhaps it's the public's demand for more casual clothing and permanent "Casual Fridays" that have hurt Ken's business more than Wal-Mart. Men just don't dress up for work like they used to. I've worn a suit and tie maybe five times in the last 10 years.]

“I hearken back to the way I was brought up — buy at the best price you can find, take care of it, and keep it for years. That idea is falling by the wayside,” he said.[Sorry, Ken, but even when I was a kid in a little small town like you so nostalgically describe, my grandmother would frequently buy underwear and socks at the Ben Franklin Five and Dime store. Underwear and socks are just things that, no matter how much you take care of, don't (and shouldn't) last for years. They are meant to be cheap and disposable.]

A mixed blessing

Downtown Pullman doesn’t look much different than downtown Ephrata, said Chris Jacobson.

Jacobson is Ephrata’s mayor and has a son attending Washington State University, so he’s had occasion to compare the two towns. There are a lot of similarities in the kinds of shops he sees in both towns.

The difference is Ephrata’s downtown already faced the Wal-Mart juggernaut and survived.

“It was probably a mixed blessing” he said.

The Wal-Mart Supercenter moved in about six years ago and has drawn customers from nearby towns such as Coulee City and Quincy, Jacobson said, giving Ephrata’s sales tax revenues a much-needed boost. Like Pullman, Ephrata suffered in the wake of voter-approved initiatives that cut off state money from car tabs and put a cap on property tax increases.

“Wal-Mart has increased that retail sales tax volume,” Jacobson said. “It made up for some other budget deficiencies.”

The downside was the closure of some local businesses, including a grocery store and a hardware store, said Mike Scellick, owner of Ephrata’s Sole Performance sporting goods store. [Lucky for us, we only have two national chain grocery stores and no hardware stores. There is plenty of room in the desperately under-retailed Pullman market, including room for mom-and-pop stores.]

“The people who continued to be successful were the ones who diversified and the ones that had enough experience and enough income to get through the first 12-14 months of the change,” Scellick said.

For him, that meant expanding certain areas of his business to make up for the ones where he got “killed” by Wal-Mart.

“As you go through any community, it’s the exact same thing,” he said. “The bottom line is you have to work harder once they come in and find your niche. It’s not an easy process, but you have to be willing to change.” [Ken Vogel take note.]

A Wal-Mart Timeline

October 2004 — Wal-Mart submits an application for a 223,000-square-foot retail store in Pullman. Along with general merchandise, the proposed super center on Bishop Boulevard would include a grocery store, pharmacy, garden center, and a tire and lube express.

January 2005 — The Pullman Alliance for Responsible Development forms to stop Wal-Mart from coming to Pullman.

June 22, 2005 — Pullman Public Works Director Mark Workman issues a preliminary determination of nonsignificance on Wal-Mart’s environmental checklist saying the store will not have any significant impact on the surrounding environment. Excluding attachments, more than 300 pages of public comments are submitted in response.

Aug. 25, 2005 — Workman issues a final determination of nonsignificance on Wal-Mart’s environmental checklist.

Sept. 7, 2005 — PARD appeals the final determination of nonsignificance, arguing the decision doesn’t adequately address questions about the proposed store’s impact on the city cemetery, stormwater run-off, traffic and air pollution.

Sept. 21, 2005 — Workman approves Wal-Mart’s site plan application, with a set of 35 conditions the company must meet before it can obtain an occupancy permit for the store.

Oct. 3, 2005 — PARD appeals the site plan approval, arguing Workman failed to properly consider the impacts of increased traffic, additional pollution from stormwater runoff, loss of cultural resources, fiscal impacts and economic blight.

October 2005 — Residents form Businesses and Residents for Economic Opportunity, also known as BREO. The group’s mission is to support free enterprise, business growth, and healthy competition in the city of Pullman and Whitman County. BREO members have been vocal supporters of the proposed Wal-Mart store.

Jan. 13, Jan. 20 and Jan. 26, 2006 — Spokane land use lawyer John Montgomery presides over two and a half days of public hearings on the environmental checklist and site plan appeals. Testimony for and against the store is given by residents and experts. Testimony covers including traffic, stormwater drainage, noise and light pollution, encroachment upon the Pullman Cemetery, urban blight and other issues.

Feb. 24, 2006 — Montgomery issues his decision upholding the city’s site plan and SEPA determinations, with three conditions: Wal-Mart must suspend construction until it is determined whether or not any graves in the nearby Pullman Cemetery are located on the building site; a traffic signal at the intersection of Bishop Boulevard and Fairmount Road must be completed before the building can be occupied; and Wal-Mart must study the need for a traffic signal at the intersection of Bishop Boulevard and Professional Mall Boulevard before it can get a permit to build a gas station.

March 16, 2006 — PARD appeals the hearing examiner’s decision to the Whitman County Superior Court. The 20-page appeal document states the proposed store “will have a myriad of negative impacts upon the surrounding community and residents that have not been addressed or mitigated by Wal-Mart or the City of Pullman.”

June 22, 2006 — Judge David Frazier presides over an appeal hearing in the Whitman County Superior Court. Frazier remands the case back to Montgomery, asking him to write a more detailed decision that provides more reasoning to support his conclusions.

Oct. 18, 2006 — A second appeal hearing is scheduled in the Whitman County Superior Court.
Technorati Tags:

1 comment:

April E. Coggins said...

Yeah, let's stop $750,000.00 in yearly tax revenue so Ken Vogel can have the monopoly on men's underwear. Maybe Ken's sales of underwear can fund the $1.5 million dollar bandshell.