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The battle of Baptist Road 

Wal-Mart wants in, neighbors want it anywhere else. Resisting a big-box behemoth, El Paso County style

click to enlarge Steve Sery, planning commissioner, at the proposed location of the 202,000 square-foot Wal-Mart supercenter - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Steve Sery, planning commissioner, at the proposed location of the 202,000 square-foot Wal-Mart supercenter

He's too polite to say so directly but Steve Sery doesn't care about your gripes with Wal-Mart.

You might be enraged at how Colorado's largest employer this side of government is big boxing small towns into homogenized oblivion, KO'ing small businesses into bankruptcy and exploiting Bangladeshi apparel workers.

But when it comes to keeping Wal-Mart off Monument's Baptist Road, you might just want to wipe the politics off your sleeve.

At least that's what Sery will tell you. Bashing Wal-Mart, he insists, has no effect on the folks who will help decide if the planet's largest corporation can plop a 202,000 square-foot supercenter half a mile from his home.

In fact, Sery says, "it just pisses them off."

"Them" is the El Paso County Planning Commission, a nine-member board of volunteers that advises elected officials on whether they should approve new development applications. Sery should know what rankles planning commissioners, as he's been one for the last four years. However, because this proposal would land more than 200,000 square feet of Wal-Mart in his back yard, generating an estimated 12,000 car trips per day, Sery has recused himself from voting and has joined his neighbors on the other side of the dais.

Noting a Wal-Mart Supercenter already exists just seven miles south on Academy Boulevard in northern Colorado Springs, Sery was one of nearly two dozen Monument residents, homeowners mostly, who spoke out against the project at a planning commission hearing last month. With the exception of Wal-Mart's consultants, CLC Associates of Greenwood Village, not a single citizen in all of pro-growth El Paso County spoke in Wal-Mart's favor.

Bad neighbors

Seventy miles north, in Denver, the mere whiff of a Wal-Mart "Neighborhood Market," opening in Elitch Gardens has sent the neighborhood of into a near pitch-forked hysteria.

Never mind that "Neighborhood Markets," also known as "Small-Marts," are only a quarter the size of a Supercenter, the north Denver neighborhood has gone on red alert. Citizen's groups have formed, the developer's residence has become a protest site, and for months, lawns have been littered with "Wal-Mart is a Bad Neighbor" signs. Community activists pin their campaign on Wal-Mart's reputation for forcing the closure of small businesses, destroying the character of neighborhoods, and offering notoriously low wages and benefits.

Other recent Wal-Mart projects in the Metro area have also been shouted down in recent months.

But Monument isn't Denver, and many of Baptist Road's unlikely anti-Wal-Mart crusaders are often quick to note that, in fact, they're not anti-Wal-Mart. Monument's former public works committee chair Mike Wicklund proudly boasts of being a card-carrying member of Sam's Club (Wal-Mart's warehouse division) even though he's resolutely against the proposal.

Residents say they just don't want the traffic, and in a few cases, they'd prefer their property values not be brought down by a Supercenter-sized neighbor. They don't want a store they don't believe they need and they certainly don't want it shoved down their throats by the elected five-member Board of County Commissioners, who won't have to live in its wake.

"We're not up here because we want all these shops, says former Monument Mayor Leon Tenney. "Drive to Academy Boulevard and there's 10 miles of it."

Five years since Wal-Mart's developers filed an application with the town of Monument, three years after the Gazette declared its opening a done deal, and one year since the project was stalled to find mitigation lands for the endangered Preble's meadow jumping mouse, there's still no Wal-Mart Supercenter on Baptist Road. Just a lot of high grass, a few scrub oak trees and a lot of tension -- tension that will crescendo on July 15 when the project's final arbiters, the Board of County Commissioners, will decide its fate.

"Other land use issues have been more acrimonious," says county Planning Director Carl Schueler, "[but] this is one of the most controversial things I have been involved with in my 20 years with the county."

And the passage of time only seems to raise the tension.

In 1999, Goldberg Properties, a Boulder-based realty broker that handles Wal-Mart's developments, filed an application with the town of Monument to build a 185,000-square-foot store on 27 acres on the south side of Baptist Road, just east of I-25. (Since then, Wal-Mart has added an additional 18,000 square feet to the proposed Superstore.) However, as Baptist Road serves as the boundary line between Monument and unincorporated county land, the store is not actually in the town proper.

Initially, says Monument town manager Rick Sonnenburg, the idea was that Wal-Mart would seek annexation so it could receive Monument's water and sewage services as well as provide a sales tax boon to the town of 3,400.

The following summer, representatives of Goldberg Properties met with Monument's public works committee, a volunteer board that liaisons with developers and the town in an advisory capacity.

click to enlarge Community members attend a hearing about the proposed Baptist Road Wal-Mart. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Community members attend a hearing about the proposed Baptist Road Wal-Mart.

Then-chairman Mike Wicklund recalls that the meeting became hung up on an issue that remains the project's biggest sticking points: traffic.

As many locals point out, the Baptist Road/I-25 interchange is already overloaded. At rush hour, cars exiting off I-25 can often be found backed up into the highway. And there's little hope for relief any time soon. With budgets at a premium, Colorado Department of Transportation says no major improvements are scheduled there for the foreseeable future. Complicating things further is what critics deride as a shoddy traffic access plan to the store.

"A child could see that this wasn't right," Wicklund says. "I thought they were going to go back [and] regroup. [Instead] they grabbed their marbles and they went home."

To date, Wal-Mart has never closed its application with the town of Monument. The project never came before the town in any official capacity, even though the proponents, like the Triview Metropolitan District's attorney Peter Susemihl, claim otherwise.

But Wal-Mart's direction became clearer in September 2002 when it filed a second application with El Paso County. The move angered some residents who saw Wal-Mart as having played a game of "jurisdiction shopping" simply to avoid spending money on road improvements. Other opponents have noted that the county's approval process is less stringent than small towns and that commissioners are more inclined to approve retail development so long as it's in the county because tax revenues will follow.

Shot in the foot

Essential to Wal-Mart's new strategy was finding a willing partner in the Triview Metropolitan District. Formed in 1985, Triview was set up as a special taxing jurisdiction to provide water and sewer services to residents of eastern Monument. Currently, the district serves approximately half the town's residents.

Since a Wal-Mart Supercenter can rake in over $50 million in annual sales, Triview's board of directors viewed the project as a potential means to do some needed road improvements.

So in 2001, the board authorized the establishment of a Public Improvement Corporation (PIC) to fund infrastructure necessary to commercial development through sales fees.

As proposed, the Wal-Mart PIC would work as follows: Wal-Mart finances the project with a $4 million bond to cover off-site road improvements.

Once up and running, Wal-Mart will charge a 3 percent sales fee on all purchases -- 2.5 percent will pay off the bond and the other half percent will go to Triview. When the bond is paid off in an estimated three to five years, the fee will drop to 1.5 percent, all of which will go Triview's coffers.

Opponents have assailed the PIC as nothing short of corporate welfare. Why should the world's largest corporation fund their stores on the backs of their customers? Why should the county allow this?

John Heiser, editor of the monthly Our Community News, and a former planning commissioner himself, says the PIC does more than just give Wal-Mart a free ride.

Heiser notes that the PIC's board is a private body whose members are appointed by the developer. Once the $4 million bond is paid, Heiser says Wal-Mart will enjoy an advantage over its competitors because its 1.5 percent sales fee is half the sales tax levied by the town of Monument. Heiser also notes that Monument will be the big loser since Wal-Mart will eat its tax base by drawing customers away from its grocery stores like King Soopers and Safeway. "Triview has shot themselves in the foot and they're also shooting Monument at the same time," Heiser says.

Monument's town manager Sonnenburg says the project could deal a blow to the town's budget. However, he says he's waiting to see if the project is approved before doing any budget forecast analysis.

While critics decry the project as a giveaway, Triview's general manager Ron Simpson sees it as a boon. The income the store will generate, he says, is income that didn't previously exist. "We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's a tremendous amount of money," Simpson said.

Triview's attorney Susemihl notes that with the county strapped for transportation funds, Wal-Mart might be the only way to improve the roads.

"We've said all along, if you want Struthers Road and Jackson Creek, this is the only way to do it," he said. "Most of the people opposing this live in subdivisions that haven't contributed anything to Baptist Road, [but] they've all contributed to the traffic."

Wal-Mart spokesman Keith Morris agrees, noting that many of the road improvements needed to be done regardless of the store. "There's no catalyst to begin these improvements now. Our development can be that catalyst," Morris said.

A different animal

For the last 12 years, Wal-Marts have been sprouting up all over Colorado Springs without protest from surrounding residents. And that's because, by and large, these stores -- on 8th Street south of Cimarron and East Platte Avenue, Palmer Park, Academy and Powers boulevards -- sit well within areas zoned for retail use.

click to enlarge From left, El Paso County Commissioners Wayne Williams, Tom Huffman, Chuck Brown, Jim Bensberg and Jeri Howells. The commissioners will decide the fate of the proposed Wal-Mart in Monument on July 15. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • From left, El Paso County Commissioners Wayne Williams, Tom Huffman, Chuck Brown, Jim Bensberg and Jeri Howells. The commissioners will decide the fate of the proposed Wal-Mart in Monument on July 15.

Baptist Road is a different animal.

Since Wal-Mart's inception in the early 1960s, the Arkansas-based company's growth strategy has been to locate in growing markets, however small, and allow population growth and the store's "everyday low prices" do the rest.

According to Wal-Mart spokesman Morris, the plan for the Baptist Road store has increased in size to 203,000 square feet precisely because of the growth.

"If we had built the store when it was first proposed, we'd probably be looking to expand it now because of all the growth that's gone on in and around Monument," Morris said.

In fact, Monument's population has more than tripled in the last decade. Subdivisions like Jackson Creek and Struthers Ranch are all pools from which a Wal-Mart might draw.

"For the last four years the town has averaged 150-200 [new] homes, says Monument Planning Director Mike Davenport. "Roughly two-thirds of those homes are in the Jackson Creek area.

Dominating the market

Despite the late Sam Walton's oft-quoted claim that he would not try to impose a Wal-Mart on a town that made it clear it was not wanted, the company has a reputation for not rolling over. In the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, Wal-Mart spent over $1 million in a failed attempt to overturn a ballot measure prohibiting big-box stores. In Contra Costa County outside San Francisco, it succeeded in overturning a similar ban.

California represents a much more lucrative market for the retail giant, which opened its first grocery store in that state just this year. The company has announced plans for 40 more in the next five years.

And Colorado is still a promising market. Since the first Wal-Mart opened in Pueblo in 1985, the company has added 70 Supercenters, retail stores and Sam's Clubs, becoming the state's largest private employer in 2001.

Wal-Mart opened its first store in Colorado Springs just 12 years ago and set up its first Supercenter four years later. With a store in Fountain, Wal-Mart now has six stores and two Sam's Clubs countywide.

If that sounds like no biggie -- after all, the market is also home to five Albertson's, eight King Soopers, nine Safeways, one Whole Foods, two Wild Oats and as many Grocery Warehouses -- consider this: In the eight years since entering the retail grocery market, Wal-Mart has edged out established rivals and now dominates the market share in the Colorado Springs metro area.

Pete Webb, a spokesman for both King Soopers and Safeway, notes that Wal-Mart competes by spending less on labor. Wages for a Wal-Mart employee average around $8.50 an hour, while union shops like Safeway, King Soopers and Albertson's typically pay around $14 an hour plus healthcare benefits. Webb says no Safeway or King Soopers has ever been driven out of business by a next-door Wal-Mart, but competition has forced stores to lay off staff. When a Wal-Mart opened in Fort Morgan, for example, the Safeway shaved its staff by 20 employees.

Retail analyst Rich Walker of First Properties in Colorado Springs says Wal-Mart's arrival into a market like Monument's does not signal the death knell for established competitors.

"It's kind of like when Godzilla meets one of the other big monsters in the Chinese movies. They're not gonna kill each other," Walker said.

"How many corners have you seen with a McDonald's, Burger King, and a Wendy's? Conservative people, us rednecks, tend to be very brand loyal."

As far as smaller businesses, some Monument retailers are hoping to stay afloat by not trying to beat Wal-Mart at its own game.

Woody Woodworth, owner of the High Country Store in downtown Monument, faces the daunting prospect of competing with a potential Wal-Mart while contending with a nearby Home Depot set to open next month. Woodworth specializes in plants and garden supplies; both big-box stores carry them as well.

As a result, Woodworth says he's not going to stock hoses, or other basic items that the bigger stores will out-price him on. He pins his best bet on offering superior customer service, and an extensive knowledge of which plants grow well in the region.

"I need to hang on for a year and let people experience Wal-Mart and then come back," Woodworth said.

Living with the noise

click to enlarge Woody Woodworth of the High Country Store. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Woody Woodworth of the High Country Store.

The ripples Wal-Mart will likely send through northern El Paso County is relevant to consumers, retailers and workers. But it's not germane to whether the Baptist Road project is approved.

On a windy afternoon last month, Wal-Mart's opponents who assembled on the third floor of the county administration building on East Vermijo Street seemed to know this quite well.

One of only a few opponents whose testimony strayed from the dispassionate was Deb Grandia, whose 5-acre parcel runs the risk of looking out onto Wal-Mart's loading docks. According to Grandia, a county appraisal of her property conducted two years ago reported the store's proximity would reduce the value of her property.

Grandia quoted from the county's report:

"It is my opinion that the typical buyer would consider the proximity of the Wal-Mart less than desirable condition and would explore other residences for sale in the neighborhood."

In her own words, she was more direct:

"We were told when we purchased this land that it was zoned 'community commercial' and that zoning is hard to change. Community commercial is a long way from big-box, 24-hour-a-day commercial. We will be able to see this store. We will have to live with the noise and traffic created by this store 24 hours a day."

Grandia's concerns are echoed by many of her neighbors in the Chaparral Hills subdivision. Built in the early '70s by Ken Barber of Rawhide Properties, the subdivision comprises over 40 homes, all on 5-acre lots, flanking the southeast side of the store's location.

Barber also owns the property on which Wal-Mart wants to build its newest store. Barber did not return calls seeking comment. However, several residents, including Dale Turner, maintain that Barber would be in violation of the Chaparral Hills covenant if he were to sell the property to Wal-Mart.

According to Turner and other residents, the covenant stipulates that, if sold, the property would be developed only for light commercial use -- of which, they maintain, a Wal-Mart Supercenter does not apply.

During last month's meeting, Turner criticized a traffic study that was paid for by Wal-Mart, pointing out, among other things, that it didn't take into account the traffic generated by the Monument Marketplace, a 680,000-square-foot retail site a half a mile from the proposed Wal-Mart, whose first tenant, Home Depot, will be open for business in a few weeks.

Turner also disputed the study's assertion that 60 percent of Wal-Mart customers would come to the store from east of the I-25 interchange.

"There are only 1,848 houses east of the interstate," Turner told the planning commissioners. "That means each household will have to visit the store over two times per day. I don't know about you, but I do not visit a Wal-Mart, or any other Supercenter, one to two times a day every day of the year."

Critics like Wicklund, Turner and Heiser all say there's a logical home for the proposed superstore -- and its current proposed site is not it. If Wal-Mart were to come to Monument, they maintain, a better spot would be in the Monument Marketplace -- already the home of Home Depot -- where it would not obstruct the view of any residences.

However, Wal-Mart spokesman Morris rejected that notion.

"The site that we have has much more visibility and is in a better position to capture the growth," he said.

Falling in line

It's often said that elected officials in El Paso County have yet to meet a developer they don't like. In fact, the development industry has heavily financed the campaign coffers of most elected officials.

Yet after more than six hours of testimony from Wal-Mart's consultants and the opponents who outnumbered them, the county's Planning Commission voted 7-1 against the project.

The only yes vote came from Dennis Hisey, a Republican who is currently running for the open County Commissioner seat in District 4 and has been endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, The Colorado Springs Home Builders Association and the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors.

"Reality is we have new businesses and homes being built on both sides of that interchange," Hisey explained in an e-mail to the Independent. "I believe with some of the upgrades required of Wal-Mart, the traffic flow will improve until the state rebuilds the interchange."

For his part, Sery was pleased at the disciplined approach his neighbors took in arguing against the project.

"You could take the name Wal-Mart out of the presentation and you'd have the same basic presentation," Sery says.

While Sery, Heiser, Grandia and Turner won the battle, the war for Baptist Road is far from over.

The proposal is set to go before the elected Board of County Commissioners on July 15. Even though the Wal-Mart was rejected by the volunteer planning board, it's not uncommon for the BOCC to overturn their recommendations. "I'd say they do it two or three times a year," said county Planning Director Schueler.

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