Rural identity at root of Wal-Mart fight


LANCASTER, Pa. -- From a distance, the landscape is a romance of rolling hills dotted with silos and the sweet scent of honeysuckle.

In closer, drowsy little towns come into view with Amish horse-drawn buggies joggling down pastoral roads amid knee-high cornfields.

But at point-blank range, the picture is marred by a little sign on a storefront window: "MEGA STORES DESTROY SMALL TOWNS."

Wal-Mart is coming.

Here, as the nation's largest retailer plans to build four 24-hour-a-day supercenters and a discount club, a feud is playing out.

Galvanized, anti-Wal-Mart citizen militias called "Save Our Small Town Way of Life" and "Up Against the Wal" have sprung up with office space, attorneys and petition drives. And citizens have jammed town hall meetings with placards screaming: "Wal-Mart, The Bully of Corporate America" and "Town Killers."

The Arkansas-based chain has shot back with an advertising campaign and hot line to capture the voices of supporters.

And so unfolds a battle between progress and the preservation of a simple way of life, small-town America vs. a $67 billion company pursuing free enterprise -- a case of "Not-In-My-Backyard" in extreme.

The same feud is unfolding now in Baltimore as it has elsewhere in Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont -- almost everywhere Wal-Mart has sought to expand in recent years. Once the standard bearer of rural America, Wal-Mart is increasingly viewed as the archetype of corporate America, immovable in the pursuit of profit.

"We do not want to surrender our towns to greedy retailers," said local innkeeper Allan Smith, a 65-year-old transplant from Washington, D.C. "If they turn the farmland into a pastoral version of suburbia with some parks, what the hell is that? We don't want our beautiful countryside destroyed. We don't want to lose that tranquillity."

But Wal-Mart counters with an indisputable fact: The customers are already there, and so too are Kmart, Sears and other national chains.

"It's really nice to think it's pastoral and Amish people, but the reality is there's about a half-million people" in Lancaster County, said company spokeswoman Betsy Reithemeyer. "These areas can support this type of store."

Amid the sound and fury is the almost imperceptible voice of the "Plain People" -- the bearded men in black trousers, simple shirts and broad-brimmed hats and women in quiet dress, aprons and bonnets who are otherwise known as Amish and Mennonites -- who have lived off the land for nearly 300 years, apart from the modern world of electricity, automobiles and Wal-Marts.

On their farms and in their kitchens, they whisper about the changing landscape.

"When I look around, I see farmland, I see peace," said Rebecca Huyard, a 40-year-old Amish woman standing on her porch near a tobacco-rich field in Earl Township. "And I know when the city comes in, crime goes up, all sorts of lifestyles invade your territory, and I see Lancaster as one vast metropolis in 20 years."

And with Wal-Mart, opponents envision a nightmare of commercial sprawl and traffic.

Wal-Mart's objectives

But the giant discounter is striving to give its customers what they want. Wal-Mart is designing stores in the area not only with 24-hour service, beauty salons and vision centers, but with water troughs, hitching posts and corraled-off areas for the convenience of the Plain People's horse-drawn buggies.

The bottom line may be even more compelling for the public: The company intends to invest more than $48 million to build four 200,000-square-foot supercenters and a 112,000-square-foot bulk discount club, all clustered within 10 miles of each other. They mean millions in tax revenue and the creation of about 1,750 jobs with health, dental and profit-sharing benefits.

Still, some folks are not impressed. "Shopping-wise, we don't need another resin-patio-furniture store," said Carol S. Rettew, a 42-year-old opponent and lifelong Lancaster resident.

But other folks, looking at things practically, have warmed up to the idea. "It will bring people to town, so it will help me," said Jim Lippart, owner of The House of Unusuals, a local shop brimming with bric-a-brac. "I'm sure they're not going to carry antiques and nice junk like me."

Most merchants worried

But Mr. Lippart appears to be in the minority -- at least among small retailers who tremble at the specter of Wal-Mart rolling in, undercutting their prices and putting them out of business.

"You're going to have empty stores all over the place," said Walter C. Popejoy, owner of Benner's Pharmacy, an 83-year-old local institution with a soda fountain counter and five-cent cups of coffee. "If Wal-Mart comes in, I threaten that I'll raise the price of my coffee to whatever theirs is."

It isn't an idle threat, judging from the vehemence with which the Wal-Mart resistance has attacked the store proposals.

They helped to persuade the town of West Hempfield to deny a supercenter about 18 months ago. In May, the nearby town of Warwick also rejected the discounter's plans. But it hasn't been a rout. The company is retrenching for another Warwick proposal and is moving ahead on construction at the site of its first -- and so far only -- approved store in neighboring East Lampeter. The other three sites are in the early stages of the contest -- in Ephrata, Mount Joy and East Hempfield.

Opponents firm

"They're not done with us yet," said David B. Schneider, executive director of the Lancaster Preservation Trust, a leading opponent. "If you put a 10-mile radius around each Wal-Mart site, it really looks like we're being nuked."

Actually, the onslaught of commercial development in Lancaster began long before Wal-Mart arrived. From 1980 to 1990, more than 60 square miles of the county was converted from farmland to suburbia, adding 83,000 vehicles on the roads while the population grew by 60,000, according to the Lancaster County Planning Commission.

"It isn't like it used to be -- already," said Art Myers, 55, owner of a photography-antique shop.

The area is simply growing, and the corridors where Wal-Mart wants to build are no exception.

"Wal-Mart itself is not the problem, but a symptom of the problem in Lancaster," said Ronald T. Bailey, the county's planning director. "We're trying to contain the impact through urban-growth boundaries."

It's not too late. Lancaster still claims to be the No. 1 agricultural county in the eastern United States, producing $800 million in direct farm revenue annually, with more cows and chickens per capita than any other county.

Despite the rapid pace of development, agriculture still ranks as the No. 2 industry in the county, behind manufacturing, and tourism has held steady at No. 3, generating about $400 million annually.

Signs of modernity

But there are growing signs of another -- more modern -- way of life: the neon of gas stations, the roar of 18-wheelers and the clatter of residential construction.

"They like to build where the Amish farms are," said Reuben Weaver III, a farmer whose family settled here in the 1700s. "But they're ruining the very thing they want to look at."

"They" are not only developers and outsiders. Some farmers, if only reluctantly, have also played a part in the transformation, giving way to highways, blacktop and superstores. "Farming's getting harder and harder every year," said one of the Warwick landowners who sold an option on more than 20 acres to Wal-Mart. "Let's just put it this way: I'm getting up in age."

The clash of old and new makes an impression on one side of a dusty road on the outskirts of Warwick, where an Amish farmer works the land in his simple habit. Opposite the narrow lane rises a new multilevel brick home with a power-generated waterfall, less than a mile from one of the Wal-Mart sites.

"I don't like it," the 27-year-old farmer said of the looming development. "But what can I do? It's their property. I don't think it's right to tell someone to do this or that on his own land. Fifteen years ago, my uncle said, 'If I want to put up a hog pen, I'm going to put up a hog pen.' "

He did, and his nephew remains silent today. It is the way of the Plain People, to avert their gaze from the affairs of the "English," avoiding conflict, keeping humble.

"The quieter the life you lead . . . the closer you are to God," said Edna Esh, a 49-year-old Amish woman from nearby Earl Township.

Some Plain People have already begun to hitch their wagons for Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and other points west. Of Lancaster's 442,679 residents, only about 18,000 Amish and 50,000 Mennonites remain, according to local estimates. It is hard to determine whether their numbers are dwindling because census tracts don't distinguish by religion. People only sense it.

Resignation of farmers

"It's driving farmers out of the county," a 70-year-old Amish man from West Lampeter said of the inexorable drive of commercial development. "The best farmland in the country is being torn up." Yet he added: "We won't fight it."

There is no bitterness in his voice, only resignation.

Wal-Mart has interpreted the silence as a sign of acceptance. "My sense is the Amish people themselves have no problem with this," said Bob Cheyne, Wal-Mart's director of community relations. The opposition, he gathers, comes from others, "a vocal minority."

From a distance, there is nothing to hint at discontent, just a tranquil patchwork of tiny farms and fields of black locust and elms, a place where it seems at times that industrialization never quite caught on.

"It comes from the Bible, 'Be ye not of the world,' " said Ruth Auker, a soft-spoken conservative Mennonite who lives with her sister, Edna, in a gas-lit farmhouse about a mile from the Wal-Mart site in Ephrata. The Auker sisters wistfully recall another time when things were simpler.

"The lights. I like it when it's dark when I go out at night," Edna Auker said. "I don't want all this light pollution. I have to go behind the barn to see the stars."

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