As I headed to Chelan, Wash. this week, I kept asking myself the same question: "What is it about Wal-Mart that stirs such passion?"
The story I was covering involved a Wal-Mart store that was recently built; just days away from its grand opening, a lawsuit was filed by opponents who threatened to shut down it down. The shelves were already stocked and the staff of 200 was ready to go. But, a group called "The Defenders of Small Town Chelan" would rather have those people thrown out of the store and presumably into the unemployment line, than see the world's largest corporation get even bigger.
This opposition group was able to find a legal loophole on which to fight. Turns out the City of Chelan violated its own zoning law in approving a project this size (166,000 square feet). Residents were under the impression that the store would be no bigger than 50,000 square feet. A judge sided with The Defenders of Small Town Chelan, ruling that the building permits are invalid. The matter was sent back to the city council to fix, and if leaders don't follow the letter of the law, opponents will haul Chelan and Wal-Mart back into court.
As I interview members of The Defenders of Small Town Chelan, it quickly becomes obvious that their fight is not really about zoning laws. It's driven by a deep hatred for Wal-Mart. They blame Wal-Mart for being too big. They blame Wal-Mart for globalization. They blame Wal-Mart for being anti-union. They claim that the low prices Wal-Mart is able to charge are the result of paying workers low wages and providing little, if any, benefits.
Wal Mart defends its practices and has recently started fighting back, launching a P.R. blitz. Ads tout the company's job creation (1.3 million workers in U.S. makes it easily the country's largest employer), charitable giving ($245 million in 2006) and career opportunities (long-time employees describe how they moved up the ladder). In Chelan, Wal-Mart is paying more than the city's average wage. In fact, a couple of city staffers went to work there in order to make more money. But detractors are unmoved. They believe that when a Wal-Mart comes into a city, surrounding businesses suffer -- negating the jobs created by the new store. To be sure, with 5,000 stores worldwide, Wal-Mart has driven some competition out of business.
In the case of Chelan, the mayor tells me that the store will give the city a much-needed boost. It's a city hit hard by the recent downturn in the apple business. Downtown stores that sell the same goods are adjusting to be more service-oriented boutique shops. Many of the 7,000 year round residents already drive to a Wal-Mart 30 minutes away. If they spend their money at the Wal-Mart in town, the city will see roughly $200,000 annually in sales tax revenue. And in a city with a general fund of just $6 million, that's a significant revenue stream.
It looks like Wal-Mart will open as planned on Monday, January 22. But how long the store is in business remains up in the air. The Defenders of Small Town Chelan are still looking at their legal options. Group leaders say that Wal-Mart may win this battle, simply becuase they bullied their way to victory. Had they not continued building the store through the legal challenge and hired the staff, they argue, the judge would have likely shut them down. Perhaps. But the truth is, most of the city's residents are happy with the outcome ... for now.
Dan Springer joined FOX News Channel as a Seattle based correspondent in August, 2001, and extensively covered the war in Afghanistan. You can read his bio here.
Dan Springer joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in August 2001 as a Seattle-based correspondent.