IS Chestertown about to become Everywhere, USA?
The Kent County Planning Commission Tuesday gave preliminary approval for a 93,000-square-foot Wal-Mart to be located just outside the limits of the historic town. In March, two of the three county commissioners also approved the store plans preliminarily.
With these votes, Kent County took a gigantic step toward the sameness, the bigness and the ugliness that have turned so many other parts of America into suburban wastelands whose highest aesthetic expression is the indoor mall.
Noting the historic downtown in the county seat of Chestertown and a rural flavor throughout the county, local residents are skeptical about the impact of a retail store that is twice as large as any other store currently operating in the county.
What's going on in this tiny county of 17,000, tucked away on Maryland's Eastern Shore?
Why does Wal-Mart, a company that claims it locates its stores in communities not smaller than 15,000, want to be in a county in which 17,000 residents are spread over 280 square miles?
Wal-Mart's own data show that the company expects stores to generate $295 each year in sales per square foot, which translates into $27 million, $4 million more than Kent countians spent in all of 1989 on merchandise typically sold by Wal-Mart. It's about $1,600 per county resident.
Where are all of these retail dollars supposed to come from? Repeatedly through various public hearings on the huge store, citizens asked Wal-Mart and its representatives for the demographic information that Wal-Mart had gathered to justify locating in Kent County.
The developers representing the store claimed that these data were "proprietary information" and highly confidential. They declined to make them public.
Curiously, both the county's planning and zoning commission and the county commissioners were silent on this point. Neither of these bodies apparently felt it necessary to review Wal-Mart's demographics to understand where the company thinks $27 million will come from.
Wal-Mart has stores in Elkton and Easton, Md., and Dover, Del., all in subdivisions bigger than Kent. (Dover's county is six times bigger.) And all are within a short ride of Chestertown.
Readers of national newspapers and business magazines know
that Wal-Mart is currently flush with cash. The company is buying real estate all over the country. The strategy in many markets appears to be to buy and hold until population catches up. Clearly, the company expects Kent County to grow rapidly.
Historic Preservation, a monthly magazine of the national Trust for Historic Preservation, has named Chestertown one of the top dozen "favorite travel destinations" in the United States. Chestertown is also a registered historic district.
No one knows why county officials want to plunk a retail store of this size next to a town famous for its charm and human scale. The commissioners were silent before voting on the matter, and they've offered no substantive comments since their vote.
In the meantime, if Wal-Mart cannot build in Kent County, the company has threatened to build its huge store just across the Chester River in Queen Anne's County. In response, a citizens' group there has formed to oppose a mega-store in their area.
Chestertown and Kent County, so long preserved from the excesses of suburbia, have now learned that no place is safe from being "malled."
Michael Holden lives in Chestertown and teaches at Delaware State College in Dover.