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Little New England Town Gives Black Eye to Wal-Mart

October 20, 1993

GREENFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ The downtown Wilson’s department store bustled Wednesday with the usual old-timers and homemakers hunting for bargains in a town now jokingly dubbed a ″Wal-Mart-free zone.″

In a public referendum the day before, this western Massachusetts community of 18,000 narrowly rejected a proposed Wal-Mart as too big, powerful and threatening to their small-town way of life.

″It’s a very unique town, and I don’t think we need big businesses like that to come in and take away from the beauty of the town,″ said Tami Silk, a customer at Wilson’s.

It was the latest setback to the nation’s largest retailer in its push to transplant its style of Gargantuan storefronts and Lilliputian pricing to New England. Company spokesman Jane Arend said she was unaware of any other community in the country that has voted down a Wal-Mart.

Downtown merchants, young professionals who fled big cities, ex-hippies, social activists and diehard Yankees joined hands in an unlikely alliance that led the campaign against rezoning land two miles outside downtown for the Wal- Mart.

The local daily newspaper and some pro-development forces rallied for the store.

The rezoning measure lost by only nine votes, 2,854 to 2,845, but town officials said they did not expect a recount.

Just six months earlier, the town had voted by a 2-1 margin in an advisory referendum to zone for the Wal-Mart, but opponents persisted, forcing Tuesday’s binding vote with a petition drive.

At company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., Arend said Wal-Mart would drop its Greenfield proposal but might try to place a store nearby.

Local opposition has stalled proposed Wal-Mart stores in several communities around the region. In September, Wal-Mart canceled a project in Westford in the face of complaints from residents. Vermont residents worried about their downtowns have so far delayed plans for the first Wal-Marts in that state.

Arend said Wal-Mart, which already has opened 31 stores in New England, won’t back away from the rural region. She said Sam Walton founded the discount stores to give small-town folk the low prices and personal service available in bigger communities.

″We find that consumers in New England are just like those in the Midwest or the West Coast,″ Arend said. ″They’re looking for a bargain.″

Many Greenfield residents were disappointed by the vote. ″That’s too bad - free enterprise 3/8″ said Barbara Underwood. ″Downtown is hurting downtown. If you’re good, what are you afraid of?″

But refugees from big cities say they moved to Greenfield, once a powerhouse of tool manufacturing, for its cozy downtown of brick facades and small businesses.

″The downtown is not just a commercial stop,″ said Kevin O’Neil, a Cambridge native who married locally and now serves as president of Wilson’s, the 111-year-old, four-story department store that anchors downtown.

″You have your town hall. You have your police station. ... You have your coffee shops. You have the library. These are all integral parts of the community where you meet your neighbors.″

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