If one chooses to drive into the shopping area of Fenton, Missouri the first impression
is of new bustling retail commerce. But almost as fast occurs a second undercurrent of
an alternate, and momentarily elusive negative feelling, that of superficiality
partially covering a situation of decay and abandon. The new Walmart and surrounding
new stores only briefly distract attention from the tall weeds growing along the
sloped rocky edges of obviously unfinished landscaping. Enormous piles of rock provide
the principle view from many new homes along the perimeter of the new commercial area.
A short drive past the rubble-bordered shopping center entrances takes us to the "Old Town"
area where we see not more thriving enterprise, but a high level of abandonment. The ghost
buildings that formerly housed Walmart and several of the other relocated stores provide
a startling contrast to the bluffs above. It is easy to imagine tumbleweeds blowing across
the vacant and un-maintained parking lots. A count of fading orange city "occupancy permit
required" notices makes it easy to calculate that a frightening percentage of the
storefronts are now empty, and have been for some time. It is not too hard to discover why.
According to reliable sources this deterioration started several years ago when the Walmart
on Gravois voiced a desire for new quarters. After threatening to move out of the city completely
Walmart got what it wanted: new quarters in a government subsidized retail area, partially
funded by Tax Increment Financing. $37 million was given to help pay for the development of
just the largest of the three new shopping areas. The total funds raked out of the taxpayers'
future wallets is so staggering that it could take one to two decades to pay back, if not more.
There is even early concern that one of these TIF packages may run past the government time
limitations, potentially ruining Fenton's credit rating. All because Walmart wanted a new shiny building.
But that is not the half of the story. That area with the imaginary tumbleweeds, it is now unable
to draw new business. The "big box" buildings are undesirable, but the cost to replace them, even
with the now desperately needed TIF assistance, will not add up to a profitable business possibility.
Only a limited number of alternate "big box" businesses are available. Present financial sluggishness
adds to the problem, but not as much as the most critical component, which was brought up at a recent
Fenton Economic Development Commission meeting.
Walmart has the option to sell only to whom they choose. They will not sell the old building to any
potential competitor, for obvious reasons, which means a big "NO" to all major household retail
department stores. And now not even grocery stores are welcomed as Walmart is expanding into that market.
PBS had a special in early 2001 about Walmart and their methods. The sugestion that their common
practice of deliberately over saturating their own market to drive out competition, only to abandon
some of their stores as in Fenton, was explored in this special. The program pointed out that at that
time Walmart had something like 390 empty stores on the market.
The City of Fenton is talking about use of eminent domain to coax this issue off dead center. The
problem is of course that Walmart has such financial resources that they could keep any eminent
domain actions tied up in court for years, potentially completely depleting Fenton's already strained resources.
The final picture is bleak. Fenton is loosing its battle with the goliath, and notwithstanding some unforeseen
miracle little hope remains for the big box section of their Old Town area.
But perhaps there is one ray of good that might come of this decimation. Perhaps Fentonšs decline into
dominance by the giant can be a learning point for other communities. The City of Maplewood is considering
their first Walmart. Walmart said no TIF's were necessary. Of course they are only talking for the present.
In the future one is inclined to assume Maplewood will also fall under the heavy feet of the monster when
it will want its store replaced, and could be held hostage, just like Fenton.
Join my boycott of all Walmart and Sam's stores anywhere in the world!
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509 Main Street
Fenton, MO 63026-4169