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Wal-Mart Wars Opposition efforts in three Western New York communities prove effective in preventing megastore from opening

In the old days, David used a sling and a stone to keep Goliath out of town.

It's not that simple these days, when Goliath is the Wal-Mart retail chain and David is the citizens group that seems to pop up wherever the Walton clan's business wants to set down its footprint.

But the Davids have been having their day in some places.

In Lockport, a proposed Transit Road Wal-Mart Supercenter is apparently off the table while the company looks for a new site.

In Amherst, a proposed Millersport Highway store was killed -- although the town is now being sued by the property owners.

In Lima, a rural community near Geneseo, residents fought off the potential rezoning to keep Wal-Mart out.

In other places, from Lake Placid in the Adirondacks to Burlington in Vermont to New York City, Wal-Mart has been forced to deal with the pain of rejection.

One of the constants is the strategy Anne Leary and her allies developed when they kept Wal-Mart out of East Aurora in 1995. East Aurora was one of the first communities to keep Wal-Mart out and was featured in a "60 Minutes" report on the issue at the time.

"We were fortunate; we were one of the first ones to win the battle," Leary said.

"What we've done in various towns and villages is we've forced the issue, to say, 'At this present date, where do you stand on the Wal-Mart issue?' " she said. "It's put candidates into a corner, because they don't want to answer it. But they've been forced to."

Leary was referring to some of the towns she received calls from after her group's success in her hometown. She estimates she consulted in close to 40 communities fighting Wal-Mart.

Leary and most of Wal-Mart's critics cite the company's devastating effects on village main streets, low wages for workers and traffic and crime problems around stores as reasons they don't want the chain in their community.

Although the chain is hugely successful, Wal-Mart has been accused of driving American jobs overseas and encouraging employees to seek health benefits from Medicaid instead of obtaining them through the company.

Of course, not everyone sees it that way, if judged by nothing more than full parking lots and a healthy corporate bottom line. And not all politicians jump on the anti-Wal-Mart bandwagon. North Tonawanda Mayor Lawrence V. Soos welcomes the store to the former Melody Fair area.

And while concerns about the fate of the Grandview Drive-In are driving opposition in the Town of Evans, Angola Village Trustee William Houston makes the argument: "Where else are you going to get a pair of socks between Hamburg and Fredonia?"

In fact, Town of Lockport Supervisor Marc R. Smith said he is supportive of Wal-Mart building a new supercenter -- a combination of old-style Wal-Mart and supermarket -- on the site of the old Lockport Mall.

"They're already in our community," he said. "And we've been working on a marketing plan for the North Transit corridor. We're interested in growing our commercial area, and that would be one positive step."

What apparently happened to derail plans for a new Lockport store was that while Wal-Mart was pursuing the required zoning variances, its option on the property ran out. The owner, General Growth Properties, then raised the price, reportedly by as much as $1 million.

That scenario isn't necessarily encouraging for opponents of the Lockport Mall Wal-Mart, but the zoning process did delay the project long enough to stall it, at least temporarily.

So the combination of zoning and political pressure adds up as factors in resisting Wal-Mart, Leary said.

In East Aurora, the zoning process took long enough that she was able to help elect enough Village Board members opposed to the Wal-Mart proposal that it was stopped.

Wal-Mart plans typically struggle when the property needs to be rezoned, said Wal-Mart's Phillip Serghini, the company's senior manager for public affairs in New York State. Then it becomes a question of the preference of the ruling boards -- as it was in East Aurora.

But if the zoning is already in place, it's a matter of meeting the site's requirements.

"It's a formal process under state law, and you may like it or may not like it," he said. "But at least it's a process."

Serghini said his company tries to address the concerns of the neighbors of proposed projects, whether it's lighting, traffic or the style of building.

He contends, however, that some groups in Erie County are union-based.

"Some of the so-called community groups really are paper groups," he said. "They're made up and funded by people that have their own self-serving purposes."

That wasn't the case in East Aurora, where Leary said her group was able to pull about 800 volunteers together.

It isn't likely to be the case in neighboring Orchard Park, either, where residents have started to attend Town Board meetings to voice their concerns about the proposed Wal-Mart at the Quaker Crossing development area.

Orchard Park resident Jim Craw said he got involved last year when a volleyball park was proposed for his neighborhood. Now he sends out e-mail alerts to a group of like-minded residents when he sees something that concerns him -- and Wal-Mart does concern him.

"It's made me realize, if we could organize our efforts, all the little groups in town, together we're stronger," he said.

Craw said he is in contact with about 30 people. Their concerns include traffic and the rezoning of the proposed site from industrial to commercial last year.

The Orchard Park Town Board seems divided on the project, with some arguing that in the wake of the rezoning, some kind of big commercial development will be going there -- whether it's Wal-Mart or not.

Councilman Mark Dietrick said he has received letters from residents supporting the project. Councilwoman Deborah Yeomans said she hasn't been convinced yet.

"I'm listening to what people are saying, which is not very positive," she said. "My concern is 'Is it a suitable place for it to go?' "

Leary, meanwhile, has moved on from the Wal-Mart battles to working as a fundraising consultant.

She said she still sees the battle as a David-and-Goliath issue, but one that community groups can win.

"People don't have to resign themselves to [Wal-Marts]," she said. "But they have to remind the elected officials that they have a real responsibility to the residents, not the developers."

e-mail: eploetz@buffnews.com

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