Wal-Mart, the retail chain giant, is making overtures to open a scaled-down store in Mount Airy, a town where small business is a way of life.
Although the deal is far from complete, many of the 5,000 residents of the town, which straddles Carroll and Frederick counties, oppose it. They have have dubbed themselves "Us Against the Wal," a name borrowed from a Pacific Coast town that repelled the giant of retail from its shores.
"We want to make Mount Airy an unpalatable thing for Wal-Mart to swallow," said Catherine Ditman, an accountant for many local businesses who helped organize the group. "We are marshaling enough opposition so they won't even bother us."
The group has gathered several hundred signatures in a petition drive that began late last month. Ditman is taking cues from Gig Harbor, Wash., residents who gathered 13,000 signatures in a three-year battle against Wal-Mart. She has scheduled a preliminary meeting Thursday.
"It all has to do with determination, not resignation," she said. "If it takes us years, we will do it."
A Wal-Mart spokesman said the retailer is considering a 14-acre property in Mount Airy Shopping Center at Route 27 and Ridgeville Boulevard. The proposed store would be about 85,000 square feet, smaller than Wal-Mart's outlets in Westminster and Eldersburg.
"This is far from a done deal, but we are working with the developer," Keith T. Morris, director of community affairs, said from the company's Bentonville, Ark., offices. "We are interested in the Mount Airy market."
Neither of the two Carroll County outlets "directly serve customers in Mount Airy on a daily basis," Morris said. "This store would be a local outlet that would curtail retail leakage."
Morris said he was puzzled by the petition and opposition, which he attributes to fear of the unknown.
"These people have no idea of the economic benefits or the jobs," he said. "We have not shown them anything yet. Negative perception is greater than the reality."
Wal-Mart often brings other retail development to an area, often before the stores open, and it draws more shoppers per day than other outlets, Morris said. Its traditional competitors are not the specialty stores that line Main Street, but other large discount retailers.
Main Street apprehensive
Main Street, which is trying to reinvent itself, is apprehensive, said Anne Dorsey, owner of Whistlestop Bookstore, a popular downtown gathering spot for nearly four years.
"The sheer size of it will have a big impact," Dorsey said. "It is not what the town needs. I don't think every little town in America has to have a Wal-Mart, and I am surprised at how many customers are saying the same thing."
Small business is the way of life in the town she has called home for 12 years, Dorsey said. Sales of new and used books have increased and she is making a profit.
She feels connected to her customers, knows many by their first names and chats amiably with everyone. An easy chair sits in the storefront beckoning browsers to test-read a best seller.
But if Wal-Mart opens, she fears "disposable income of the town could go to one source: a megastore." She sends many customers across Main Street to sign the petition at the Gun Shack, where owner Steve Brown is anticipating competition and adding more items to his inventory.
"A lot of older people are signing the petition, because they want Mount Airy to stay the same," Brown said. "It will keep growing, but the timing is not right for a Wal-Mart."
The store could end a Main Street revitalization, which has drawn several new businesses to downtown. At Bohn's Furniture & Appliances, Mary Sprague has been a sales associate for 30 years.
"I hate to see it come because it will ruin Main Street," Sprague said. "I don't think anybody wants it, but I don't think Wal-Mart cares."
Although Wal-Mart could anchor and draw visitors to Mount Airy Shopping Center, one of the oldest in town, tenants are giving the news mixed reviews.
Chester Maleski, the 18-year owner of Heidi's card and gift shop, said he would retire if the Wal-Mart hurt his business.
"Wal-Mart has four stores within 20 minutes from here," Maleski said. "People go farther than 20 minutes for lunch."
Matt Largent, owner of the TCBY store in the center, said Wal-Mart "would be the best thing that could happen to me." Since the post office moved and the hardware store closed, traffic has dropped considerably in the center, he said.
He considered moving his business to a newer center until he heard of Wal-Mart's plans.
"Wal-Mart will bring other big names," he said.
Center's tenants excited
Gary Rappaport, the center's developer and owner, said he is willing to lease the site to Wal-Mart and work on road improvements.
"I met with all the tenants and there is 100 percent excitement," he said. "Wal-Mart is doing its studies right now, but if if comes, it will be very beneficial to all."
Mayor Gerald R. Johnson is not nearly as enthusiastic but said, "If they are willing to address our concerns and make it business friendly, they will be here."
Johnson's greatest concern is for the longtime family-owned businesses, the "people who have their whole lives wrapped up in a shop and cannot sell their property," he said.
"Wal-Mart could care less about Mount Airy," the mayor said. "They will be here for a profit. If [there is] no profit, they will fold up and go away."
Michael Zimmer, chairman of the town economic development commission, said he has heard little consensus, but thinks the opposition is more committed.
"There is an element of convenience, but the trade-off is quality of life," Zimmer said. "This town does not have the size to justify a Wal-Mart. If it comes, we won't be able to maintain our small-town ambience."
Up Against the Wal will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Mount Airy library branch, 705 Ridge Ave. Information: 301-829-1957.
Pub Date: 6/15/98