Walmart opening reflects larger debate

Jun. 15, 2013 @ 10:41 AM

You may love them, you may hate them. You may be among the seemingly handful of people who are fairly neutral about them.

But it’s difficult to dispute the impact that Walmarts have had on modern America.  With their cavernous big-boxes, deep inventory and, most notably, their low prices, they’ve transformed shopping habits, upended countless small, independent merchants and brought seldom-seen options to many small towns across the United States.

So it’s not surprising that the grand opening of a new Walmart in Chatham County attracted attention and celebratory crowds last week.

Folks such as Janet McFarland and Shalena Pugh spoke for the shopper-level perspective. “It’s close, and I don’t have to drive across town now,” McFarland told The Herald-Sun’s Gregory Childress. “I won’t have to go anywhere else,” Pugh offered.

The new Walmart represents something much more – and problematic – than a great new shopping venue.

It means jobs and sales-tax revenue, both especially welcomed in an area short on both.

The store eventually is expected to employ about 200 people. “Hopefully, this will keep people close to home,” said Chatham County Commissioner Chairman Walter Petty.

Petty also estimated the store would generate some $500,000 to $600,000 in sales-tax revenue. “That’s going to be a big deal,” he said.

The good news for Chatham County may not be so much so for Orange County.

Both McFarland and Pugh are from Orange County, so the sales-tax dollars they take to Chatham don’t go to Orange. And Chapel Hill and Orange County have struggled for years to balance many citizens’ apprehension about excessive commercial growth, especially by big-box stores and large developments, with a desire to broaden a tax base disproportionately dependent on individual property taxes.

That debate is playing out once again over East West Partners’ proposal for a mixed-use development called Obey Creek, not far from the new Walmart but just across the line in Orange County.

Many residents worry the proposed development will be too dense and generate too much traffic. Developer Roger Perry argues that heavy traffic is coming to that area regardless, and that road and transit improvements can handle it.

We suspect the discussions will be prolonged and arduous. And it will be interesting to see if, in a few years, a celebration similar to Wednesday’s at Walmart will be replayed just a bit up the road.