Residents gear up to battle Wal-Mart Meeting draws 70 opposed to retailer's plan for third store


The citizens group "Us Against the Wal" was formed in May as soon as news leaked that Wal-Mart was interested in putting a store in Mount Airy.

The group's first meeting last night drew about 70 people, who oppose what would be the retail giant's third outlet in Carroll County.

"Everyone in this room stands to be affected by this predator," said Catherine Ditman, an accountant for many local businesses that organized the group. "We have to make Mount Airy a poison pill that Wal-Mart won't want to swallow."

The group has gathered several hundred signatures on petitions opposing the store that will be delivered to Wal-Mart and to local officials. The petition drive began late last month.

Group members last night suggested other ways to make their opposition known -- fliers, yard signs, action committees. Others raised the question of bake sales to raise money for the battle.

"This has to be a concerted effort so we look like we have a unified voice," said Linda Boyer, former town mayor. "We are not just opposing Wal-Mart, we are watching the destruction of a community."

Wal-Mart is proposing an 85,000-square-foot store for a 14-acre property in Mount Airy Shopping Center at Route 27 and Ridgeville Boulevard.

"We are interested in the Mount Airy market," Keith T. Morris, Wal-Mart director of community affairs, said last week from company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

The store could have an adverse impact on homes nearby, particularly the stately older residences along South Main Street, residents said.

"We could lose our entire Main Street to commercial property," Boyer said. "This property is already zoned commercial. If Wal-Mart is successful, we have to control the impact on the community."

Ditman is taking cues from Gig Harbor, Wash., a town comparable in size to Mount Airy and whose residents collected 13,000 signatures on petitions in a successful three-year battle against Wal-Mart.

"In the face of that much opposition, Wal-Mart backed down," said Ditman, who purchased a share of the chain's stock so that she can be on its mailing list. "We have to be visible, public and loud, but polite."

She urged the group to pressure the State Highway Administration because the developer would have to improve Route 27, a state road, before building the store.

Main Street, which is trying to reinvent itself, is particularly apprehensive. Small business has defined the way of life in the town of about 5,000, said Anne Dorsey, owner of Whistlestop Bookstore, a popular downtown gathering spot.

"Once Wal-Mart comes in, they drive out the small businesses that have been here for years," said Roberta Hermann, a town resident. "They figure they can force us to shop in their store. I resent the Big Brother attitude."

Many in the group wanted an education and awareness campaign targeting the town's newer subdivisions, where many newcomers have not become involved in local life.

Charles Samuel, a sales representative and town resident, suggested graphs that show all local businesses and what effect Wal-Mart would have on them.

"Wal-Mart deals directly with the manufacturer and refuses to deal with any sales force," Samuel said. "They cut out jobs to pass discounts along to consumers."

Ditman produced statistics that show for every two minimum-wage jobs the retailer creates, three others, often higher paying, are lost.

"A show of support is the only way to beat them," said Fred Brown. "We have to show them Mount Airy is an undesirable area."

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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