Everyone knows Wal-Mart as the schoolyard bully of retailing. When it shows up, other stores cower in terror. But what happens when the tables are turned? Guelph, Ont., provides a fascinating study of Wal-Mart as victim.
For a decade, the local group Residents for Sustainable Development tried to derail a planned Wal-Mart in Guelph’s north end, even though the site is at the junction of two highways in a commercial area. They argued the store was too big, traffic would get worse and downtown merchants would be destroyed. When those arguments didn’t work, they tried religion. Jesuits at a nearby retreat were encouraged to claim that Wal-Mart’s “bigbox spirituality” would infringe on their Charter rights to practise religion freely. An appeal was granted, but ultimately failed. Guelph’s first Wal-Mart finally opened in 2006.
Now the store’s popularity has led to plans for expansion, and its foes are back. In early July, city council voted nine to four against approving the expansion due to a lack of commitment to energy efficiency. One councillor said she voted down the motion because there were no solar panels on Wal-Mart’s roof.
This necessity for solar panels “came out of thin air,” says Prakash David, representative of 6 & 7 Developments, which owns the land. He was never asked to include solar panels and the city doesn’t have the legal right to demand them. In fact, Wal-Mart’s plans exceed building code energy efficiency requirements by 25 per cent.
“It is hard not to think city council is treating Wal-Mart differently,” says David. “We seem to be held to standards that don’t apply to anyone else in town.” The battle is not over yet, however. The mayor of Guelph, who supports the store, plans to bring the matter back for a vote in September. M
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