Remember Nieder Acres? It was a small residential neighborhood that once existed where Target and other retail stores presently are located. For decades we fought the commercialization that occurred around our once rural area - K-mart, 84 Lumber, a trailer court, even Wal-Mart when it tried to locate where Penney's currently is - and we did it all alone.
One thing we did not do was personalize an attack on any of those businesses that proposed to locate near us. We based our arguments on what we perceived to be the flaws, often related to increased traffic, of each commercial development. While some opponents of Wal-Mart focus on what they perceive to be flaws in the company's current development plans at Sixth and Wakarusa, I see far too many personal attacks on Wal-Mart itself. It reminds me of the viciously negative political ads we saw - and claimed to hate - during the recent election season.
Once Wal-Mart was allowed to build adjacent to my former neighborhood, I shopped there and was glad to have a place to take our recyclables. I also like the fact that Wal-Mart provides so many jobs to handicapped individuals and senior citizens. No one is forced to work there and - given the number of people who do - I believe that Wal-Mart's pay scale and benefits must compare very favorably to those of downtown merchants.
Furthermore, Wal-Mart employees spend their paychecks locally. If Wal-Mart requires a window replaced or a plumber or an electrician in an emergency, they call a local company to make the repair, providing work for employees of other businesses who also spend their paychecks locally.
I am a supporter of local businesses, yet there was a time when chain stores in Lawrence were not looked on with disfavor. Weaver's, one of my favorite locally owned stores, long co-existed and successfully competed with several chain department stores downtown, among them Penney's and Montgomery Ward. Downtown also had Woolworth's and Duckwall's variety stores along with several chain grocery and drug stores. I am surprised by the degree of anger currently directed against chain stores like Wal-Mart and the refusal of many to acknowledge any benefits to the community from such retailers.
Wal-Mart pays a hefty property tax bill (figuring local 2005 mill levy figures available on the Internet, the 2005 appraisal of almost $8 million for the Iowa Street store resulted in payments of $52,732 to the city, $60,178 to the county and $104,131 to the school district). Now that the South Iowa store is greatly enlarged, the property tax Wal-Mart pays will be considerably more. When some community leaders say we need to broaden our tax base, that is what they are talking about; it takes a lot of residences to pay that amount in property taxes. Wal-Mart also pumps tens of thousands of dollars in sales tax revenue into the local economy. Much of that sales tax money comes from shoppers outside the Lawrence area.
I am not taking a position on whether Wal-Mart should build at its proposed location on Sixth Street, but I personally believe that there is nothing the retailer might do to gain approval from three city commissioners who appear determined to deny the proposal. I do not have any connection to Wal-Mart, nor do I own its stock, but I hope when fair-minded people read this, they will realize there is another side to having Wal-Mart in our community than the one represented by those who are leveling personal attacks against it at meetings and in the newspaper.
And I hope reasonable people will tone down personal attacks not only on Wal-Mart, but also on individuals with whom they disagree. Once upon a time in this city, people on opposite sides of an issue like Wal-Mart's proposed development or building the South Lawrence Trafficway could state their cases clearly and convincingly without engaging in personal attacks. It is too late to preserve that civilized city where friends could disagree and still stay friends. It's gone. But that is the city I want back and that is the community our children and grandchildren should inherit.