The National Trust for Historic Preservation did something unusual, if not unprecedented, this week. It named an entire state, Vermont, to its list of endangered historical sites.
Why should you care? Well, maybe you shouldn't, but there is a finance-related hook here. You see, the threat to Vermont seems to be -- scary drumroll please -- Wal-Mart
Let's get things straight from the top. I'm no big fan of Sam's giant blue bazaars, nor the pedestrian- and bicycle-crushing frenzy of traffic they attract, but I'm not willing to nod my head at the claim that a company, even the world's biggest, can trash an entire state. Nope, for that, the firm would need the collusion of hundreds of local zoning officials, or even an electorate. Unfortunately, there's evidence that Wal-Mart is willing to steam-roll over local opposition to its plans, but such bullying can be overcome.
The simple fact is that major retailers don't have to destroy their host towns. There are other ways to incorporate big retailers into existing city fabric. When I lived in Raleigh, N.C., for example, I was struck by the way some simple landscaping and roadwork could take away the worst of the strip-mall and parking-lot ugliness. According to The New York Times, the last time the National Trust listed Vermont as endangered, in 1993, it may have helped some towns work with Wal-Mart to bring smaller stores.
That seems to be the whole point of this latest grab for attention. The National Trust has its agenda, and Wal-Mart. well, it wants to make a zillion dollars. The two sides need to learn to play nice. After all, some shriveling municipalities could really use a place like Wal-Mart, but there's no reason a tiny berg should have to sacrifice its citizens, character, or soul to obtain it. A little more cooperation and a bit less finger-pointing might help break the impasse.
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