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When Wal-Mart lost

Karl Gattlieb recalls the exact moment he became the central figure of the Kanawha City anti-Wal-Mart movement.

It was at an evening public meeting in September 1997. Ed Maier, president of the Sarah and Pauline Maier Foundation, brought developers from Faison Associates and his lawyer, Tom Potter, to present his plan to build a Wal-Mart supercenter and other stores on a 30-acre tract at the Owens Industrial Park, which the foundation owns.

“I can remember it like yesterday,” Gattlieb said recently. “There were about 400 people there, minimum, at the City National Bank. They’re telling us the store is not going to hurt local businesses. People are just absolutely yelling and screaming.

“Somewhere near the end of the meeting, I raised my hand. I was the only guy there with a coat and tie. The developers figured I might be a supporter. The TV people stuck their cameras in my face.

“I said, ‘You people must think we all fell off a pickle truck.’ The place went deadly silent. ‘This will put everyone out of business. Foodland will be out of business.’

“Right away, I’m the hero of Kanawha City, just from that one remark. I went home. My wife said, ‘Dear God, tell me you’re not involved.’ I said, ‘I’m not.’

“I leave town for two days. I get back. She says, ‘You’ve got a meeting. You’re the president of Kanawha City First. It’s at the Foodland.

“We started a 21/2-year battle against Ed Maier and Tom Potter and Wal-Mart. We raised $50,000 right away.” More than 400 people gave anywhere from $5 to thousands of dollars to the new organization, he said. “The wealthy people were giving lots of money.”

Maier says he never saw it coming. “We thought the community would endorse it. We thought we had a home run. Who would not want the greatest retailer in the world to locate in their community, asking no tax breaks?”

Lots of people, as it turned out, although the exact breakdown is still in dispute.

“We went to every house,” Gattlieb said. “At the houses where people answered, over 80 percent were against. People were violently opposed.”

A matter of zoning ... and politics

Neighborhood opposition is one thing, but to keep a Wal-Mart out of their community, members of Kanawha City First had to find some legal grounds. They hired Nick Casey, an experienced zoning lawyer.

The Owens Park property was zoned for industrial use, said Dave Alvis, then head of the city’s planning department. To build the shopping center, Maier needed to persuade first the Municipal Planning Commission, then City Council, to give him a special permit and change the zoning to commercial.

Opponents said the center would clog already busy MacCorkle Avenue. Traffic would spill over onto residential side streets like Noyes, Staunton, Kanawha and Chesterfield avenues, they contended.

Developers offered traffic studies that showed the higher vehicle counts could be accommodated.

“From my perspective, besides some of the opposition, it was a plain-vanilla zoning issue,” Casey recalled. He argued the case at what would be the largest planning commission meeting anyone can remember.

“We had 1,000 people at the meeting,” Gattlieb said. “They had to move it [from City Hall] to the Civic Center.”

A few months earlier, Casey had unsuccessfully sought the planning commission’s blessing to allow youth soccer teams to play at a field owned by the St. Agnes school in Kanawha City. Neighbors there played the traffic card, he said.

“I told the commission, ‘You remember you turned me down because of too much traffic. Here’s the traffic report for thousands of extra cars for the Wal-Mart. If you were correct that a children’s soccer field would create a traffic burden, how could you even consider a Wal-Mart?”

Commission members voted it down 10-2.

Meanwhile, the battle for public opinion — and City Council votes — was playing out in the media.

“They kept saying stupid things that infuriated the public,” Gattlieb said of the Wal-Mart supporters. “It kind of died down over Christmas [1997], and Tom Potter makes this remark: ‘Poor little hardware store, poor little Foodland.’”

Gattlieb was referring to a Dec. 20 story in which Maier and Potter, in pitching the project to Charleston Gazette editors, answered a question as to whether the Wal-Mart would hurt Kanawha Mall merchants like Stone & Thomas and Gabriel Brothers, which were supporting the proposal.

“Everybody is afraid it’s going to hurt poor little Carriage [House] Hardware and poor little Foodland,” Potter was quoted. “Well, it won’t hurt them if their customers stay loyal to them. Nobody forces anyone to shop at Wal-Mart.”

Bryan Eads, owner of Carriage House Hardware, soon put up a sign saying “Welcome to Potterville,” Gattlieb said. The Gazette ran a photo of it.

“These guys were the opposite of P.R.,” Gattlieb said. “People were calling me, begging to give me money.”

Potter, in a lengthy Gazette commentary, later apologized for what he called the “unfortunate misconception” he said those words created.

But he also suggested the land might be used for chemical/petroleum/explosives storage, a landfill or a go-cart track, all allowed under its current zoning. “Development is going to take place,” he promised.

Maier concedes that he and Potter fell down at public relations. “Tom did come off, and I probably did too, as a bit arrogant. I’m sure a lot of people feel I’m pretentious and arrogant. Obviously, I failed in not being able to communicate the attributes of Wal-Mart in the community. It was a very emotional issue and not a lot of logic in the final analysis.”

The Wal-Mart plan suffered what was probably a fatal blow in early January 1998 when then-Mayor Kemp Melton announced his opposition. Maier called that his biggest disappointment.

“When I went to the mayor [earlier], he said this is the greatest thing to happen to Charleston since Town Center. Then, two hours before he held his press conference, he called me and said he’d changed his mind.”

City Council members got their chance to weigh in on Feb. 17, despite last-minute pleas by Maier to withdraw his proposal.

“They didn’t even want to go before City Council, but we wanted it in stone,” Gattlieb said. The final tally was 17-7 against the plan.

Maier and Wal-Mart didn’t go away, though. A month later, they were running full-page newspaper ads touting the benefits of a store. In July, Maier floated a new proposal for a scaled-down Wal-Mart — one without the controversial grocery.

But Maier had failed to check first with Wal-Mart officials to see whether they wanted to build a smaller store. As it turns out, they didn’t, he says now, and the revised plan died quietly.

Exit Wal-Mart, enter Lowe’s

If he couldn’t build a Wal-Mart, Maier was going to build something. He says he has a fiduciary duty to earn income for the charitable foundation named for his grandmother (Sarah) and mother (Pauline), who died within the past month.

He returned to city officials in March 1999 with a plan to build a 115,000-square-foot Lowe’s home building products store on the site. Developers won a key ruling from city planning officials when then-planning director Ann Beckman said no zoning change was needed because the store qualified as a lumber yard.

Kanawha City First folks tried to do battle but gave up by summer. “Nick Casey and I decided we had to know when to hold them, know when to fold them,” Gattlieb said. “In my heart, I didn’t feel Lowe’s would be as damaging as Wal-Mart.

“We didn’t have the fire in the community to fight Lowe’s. Some of the powerful people told me they wouldn’t fight it. They had [Mayor Jay] Goldman and people on council.”

Chris Smith, a Kanawha City native whose father developed much of the neighborhood, was one of the few council members in 1997 who openly supported the Wal-Mart plan. He said he and council members from the area were already trying to create a neighborhood association when the controversy erupted.

“It was kind of sad. Right in the middle of this, unfortunately, the whole issue came up. The main concern for residents was traffic. I thought I had some solutions.

“Eventually, Lowe’s went in. I think that was a better fit. I think there was a need for a good hardware store, but not a grocery. We have the Foodland, Kroger and Risk’s Market.”

Five years later, when he ran for mayor, Smith paid the price for his stand. “Oh, it definitely hurt,” he said. “I saw that as a 50-50 issue. Many saw it as 80-20. It was a splitting issue.”

Ditty Markham wasn’t on the City Council yet when the Wal-Mart issue arose, but rode it into office. “I wasn’t in the forefront,” she said. “I was there. I was active.

“When they went to put the Lowe’s in, I wasn’t happy.” City officials could have pressed Maier to build, say, housing for senior citizens to help stop the population drain, she said. Some think the site should have been used for recreation.

“This could have been income-generating,” she said, “not like a Wal-Mart, though, because nothing is as income-generating as a Wal-Mart.”

Markham fought to make sure Maier built a wall along 57th Street, as promised. The brick wall he erected last year provides a visual barrier between his property, now called Kanawha Landing, and the neighborhood.

Maier is not too happy about the wall. “That was another point of contention,” he said. “They made us spend $100,000 to put up a wall for no apparent reason.”

Lasting effects of grass-roots fight

Seven years later, memories of the Wal-Mart battle remain fresh in people’s minds. To some, it was a missed opportunity to bring economic development to Charleston. Others remember the days they and their neighbors united in a grass-roots effort to keep out a corporate giant, especially at a time when Wal-Mart was used to getting its way.

“I personally, professionally, would have liked to see a Wal-Mart there,” said Alvis, the former city planner. “It would have been good for the economy. It would have been a catalyst to get that whole area developed.”

Neighborhood resident George Hanna said he joined the opposition in part to honor his folks. “My parents ran a small business, a mom-and-pop grocery called Hanna’s Supermarket.

“A lot of people were against it. We just didn’t need it in our neighborhood. We still don’t. I know the effect these stores have. They swallow you.”

Hanna was behind a pre-election-day prank last fall, when dozens of the old anti-Wal-Mart signs suddenly appeared in Kanawha City yards one morning. Reporters called up Maier and city planning officials to see what was going on.

Hanna told the Gazette he had been storing about 200 of the signs in his garage for years and finally decided to get rid of them. Just for fun, he stuck a bunch of them in neighbors’ yards.

Maier said he’s used to quashing Wal-Mart rumors by now. “About every six months, from what I’ve been able to determine, kind of like the tsetse fly.”

He’d like to put them to rest for good. No, he says, he hasn’t tried to put a Wal-Mart anywhere in Kanawha City since he built Lowe’s and has no future plans to do so. “We don’t have any plans to do that.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t wish he could have, though, or resent those who try to tell him what do with his property.

“They [Wal-Mart] would have paid three times as much in taxes as Lowe’s is paying. It would have increased the value of, yes, my property, and the property across the street [the Kanawha Mall].

“The anti-Wal-Mart people might tell you it would decrease their property value and increase traffic. Those were the red herrings.

“The other supermarkets, and they told me personally — the Joseph boys [of Foodland] — they could not compete. I told them it is no excuse. The world changes day to day, week to week, year to year. We need to adapt to survive.

“It’s not an excuse for one property owner to another property owner putting a business on his property if another can’t compete. I don’t think a liberal or conservative could debate that if they are an American.”

Casey, the lawyer, said his phone started ringing. “I got calls from around the country: ‘Hey, you beat Wal-Mart.’ I told them it was a zoning issue.”

Gattlieb, a businessman, was glad to return to private life.

“It was a lot more work than people understand,” he said. “Arrogance is what did it.”

To contact staff writer Jim Balow, use e-mail or call 348-5102.


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