Boonville voters to determine Wal-Mart's fate

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

BOONVILLE, Mo. -- A literal interpretation of the lone item on today's election ballot -- a 28-acre annexation proposal -- suggests the political equivalent of watching paint dry.

But as residents of this historic Missouri River town 30 miles west of Columbia know, Proposition A is no ordinary annexation request.

At issue is whether Boonville will become the latest small town to embrace a Wal-Mart Supercenter -- in this case, at a location three blocks from an existing Wal-Mart.

The proposal has galvanized local opposition and support for the mega retailer, complete with inside-the-Beltway political consultants, an anti-Wal-Mart muckraker from Massachusetts and impassioned debate over Boonville's once-vibrant downtown, which now has as many empty storefronts as occupants.

The battle actually began in January, when Boonville's eight city council members unanimously rejected a Wal-Mart request for $500,000 toward better roads and other infrastructure improvements.

When the retailer replied that it would cover the needed costs of improvements, residents collected enough signatures -- 2 percent of the town's 4,800 registered voters -- to put the annexation request on the ballot.

The closing days of the campaign have seen a flurry of glossy mailings, yard signs both pro ("A-OK!") and con ("Proposition A-No Way"), and letters to the editor of The Boonville Daily News, which editorialized against the measure.

On Saturday, about 50 opponents rallied on Main Street outside a shuttered J.C. Penney department store as self-described "sprawl buster" Al Norman of Greenfield, Mass., talked about his own efforts a dozen years ago to keep Wal-Mart out of his hometown.

Norman said the Arkansas-based retailer is out of touch with local needs. To illustrate his point, he waved a Missouri Ethics Commission pre-election campaign report that lists the pro-annexation committee headquarters at a Kansas City corporate law firm.

"It's pretty much symbolic of what Wal-Mart stands for," Norman said. "Nothing is made local anymore. It all comes from outside."

Annexation supporters held a smaller gathering of their own Saturday, displaying a petition with more than 3,000 signatures in support of the Supercenter. Not everyone who signed the petition lives in Boonville, said Mark Farnen, a Columbia public relations consultant working for the project's developers.

Wal-Mart is promising Boonville 200 new jobs and $600,000 in annual sales tax revenues for the city -- statistics that Norman and other opponents dispute. A bigger store, including a Wal-Mart grocery, will keep business in town that otherwise would go to nearby Columbia or Marshall, supporters say.

For Larry Doyle, 65, a retired milk truck driver, the election comes down to two issues: more local jobs and more time with his wife, a Wal-Mart cashier who now works some nights and weekends but has been told her hours will improve if a new store is built.

Gesturing toward downtown's numerous vacant storefronts as he listened to Norman from across Main Street, Doyle said the city's economic downtown can't be blamed on just one retailer.

"Look around. It's all empty buildings," he said. "Wal-Mart didn't close these buildings."

Should Proposition A fail, Wal-Mart can still rely upon a pair of legal challenges to the annexation petition request that could overturn the election results, said Farnen.

Or the company might decide to build on the same location near Interstate 70 but remain a part of Cooper County.

"That's a very real possibility," he said Monday. "The city would forgo the tax revenue -- and still have to serve (Wal-Mart) with water and sewer."

The land under consideration for annexation is actually owned by a husband and wife, Richard and Terry Ball, but will be developed as a Supercenter pending the election, said Farnen.

Ryan Horn, a Wal-Mart spokesman, offered a less rosy prediction should the ballot measure fail. "Unless the vote comes tomorrow, we're not going to build on the site," he said.

Whatever the outcome of Tuesday's election, Boonville residents have already sent a message, said Norman, who spends much of his time traveling the country to rally opposition against Wal-Mart in similar local disputes.

"This is an anti-corporate revolution," he said. "Wal-Mart thought they could roll in here and roll right out."

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