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When Wal-Mart Comes to Town

I expected to see more stores in a film called Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town. Or at least more store owners.

For what it is -- a documentary about a town's struggle with the concepts of preservation and change -- it is a dramatic tale, and one with a true cliffhanger ending. But as a lesson in what a big-box superstore means to a local town, this new PBS film falls short.

Store Wars, which was written, produced, and directed by Micha Peled, follows one year in the life of Ashland, Va., a town of 7,200 that sits right on I-95, about 10 miles from Richmond. Peled's cameras start rolling as the town's planning commission begins to review a zoning-change request that would make way for a Wal-Mart on the edge of town.

Although Peled makes no secret that his sentiments are with the protestors, he follows both the pro- and anti-Wal-Mart citizens as they try to sell each other and the town's officials -- almost always politely -- on their point of view.

Both sides seem motivated by fear -- fear of change, fear of being left out.

"JUST TOO BIG." Those who welcome Wal-Mart want simple things like one-stop shopping, a brand of hearing-aid battery the local grocer doesn't carry, and job opportunities. "Everybody doesn't have a Master's degree," says Franklin Jackson, the only black member of the town council, as he lobbies residents to support the store's approval.

Please Vote No!

Those who want to shut down Wal-Mart's application think the store's arrival will herald the loss of something they can never get back. Although Ashland has its share of fast-food restaurants and motels, its downtown retains some of the flavor of the resort town developed in the 1800s. The train still rumbles through its center, shops and restaurants are flanked by historic homes. One resident tells the planning board, "A shopping center as big as all the stores in Ashland is just too big for the town." Their shared fear is that shoppers will abandon the local stores.

The closest the film comes to presenting an argument against Wal-Mart -- at least one that goes beyond the sloganeering of brightly painted signs declaring "No Sprawl, Y'All" -- is when two council members take a field trip to Rappahannock, another Virginia town that Wal-Mart moved into eight years earlier. Store owners tell the Ashland officials how Wal-Mart pulled business away from them. "Wal-Mart argues that it will draw shoppers to the town," one says. "It draws people to the Wal-Mart parking lot. They go in, shop, and drive away."

A TOWN DIVIDED. Although not much of a lesson in small-town economics, Store Wars is a primer for social activism, a handbook for any David thinking of taking on a Goliath. "I feel right now that we're about to compete in the Olympics, but we're just learning the sport," says Mary Leffler, a full-time occupational therapist and owner of the local coffee shop. To gather some ammunition for their battle, Leffler and her protest group, the Pink Flamingos, call in Al Norman, founder of Sprawl-Busters and author of Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart, a book that details tactics intended to stop Wal-Mart becoming your neighbor.

The most impartial character is Rosanne Shalff, the film's narrator, who is a longtime resident and author of the only book on the history of Ashland. She acts as a town guide, with an insider's perspective on the players. Shalff recalls, for example, the days when Mayor Tommy Herbert -- up for reelection and seemingly intent on pleasing everyone -- was in the Boy Scouts with her son and "wanted everyone to like him." As it happened, while Herbert lost the election, the final vote on whether or not to welcome Wal-Mart was decided the lame duck council in what Shalff calls, "This weird twilight moment, when the outgoing council is still in power."

And what power they had. At the end of a final day of debate, one that saw the vice-mayor in the hospital to "have his heart checked out," the council voted 4-1 to approve rezoning the 11 acres and, in effect, welcome Wal-Mart to the neighborhood.

THE VERDICT. Last-minute debate included a statement from Wal-Mart attorney Jay Weinberg about how the store's planners had made every concession the protesters wanted, short of going away. They changed the color of the building, shifted its position on the site to make it appear less boxy, and offered the town millions of dollars in funds for road improvement.

Responded one resident: "They'll build a nice new road to their front door. They are asking us to change the face of our town and I think our town is priceless." In the end, these two statements seemed to sum up why the protesters failed: What began as a debate about change vs. preservation came down to passion and emotion vs. reason and logic.

Perhaps the things I thought were missing from this film were also those that kept the protesters' arguments from succeeding: How much business did the local shops do before Wal-Mart? What did they sell? Who did they employ? I look forward to a sequel focusing on whether Wal-Mart, which broke ground on the Ashland site in the spring of 2001, actually does change the face of the town. Please Vote No! By Robin J. Phillips in New York

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