Walmart, McCain forge new alliance to fight sprawl
BENTONVILLE, April 1 - In a dramatic joint appearance this morning, Walmart CEO Mike F. Duke and former candidate John R. McCain announced major new initiatives to curtail poorly planned, sprawling land development across the country.
"It's the right thing to do," said Duke. "It's the best way we can live up to the image of sustainability we want our company to have." Duke's predecessor, former Walmart chief Lee R. Scott, started the retail giant on a path of increased responsibility to the environment earlier this decade. The campaign has been supported by extensive corporate advertising, but until now the company has continued to build 200,000-square foot "supercenters," each surrounded by as much as 20 acres of parking, on prime farmland beyond the edges of existing communities. The stores have seldom been reachable by customers on foot or taking public transportation.
"I am honored to stand here with my friend Mark Duke and begin this important new journey," said McCain, who was accompanied by his wife, Cindee, at the press conference. "It feels like every inch of our beautiful home state of Arizona has been paved over. Enough is enough."
While Walmart will continue to open new stores where invited to do so by local merchants, starting this month all but a handful will consist of 5,000-15,000-square-foot outlets in walkable, "Main Street" shopping districts and mixed commercial-residential neighborhoods. The company will recycle historic buildings with adaptive reuse whenever possible, and each store will have its own product mix, designed to "complement rather than compete" with local small businesses. Duke said his company would also be initiating a grant program to help small businesses in traditional town centers stay afloat during the recession.
"There's no way we can have a sustainable recovery if we allow international chains to draw the lifeblood from our homegrown businesses and communities," said Duke. The company also intends to make its new, industry-leading employee health care plan available to locally owned retailers in the communities where it operates.
McCain, for his part, announced that he will be sponsoring legislation to require regions to draw "urban growth boundaries" around cities and suburbs in order for their states to qualify for federal transportation funding. Such boundaries, pioneered in Oregon, are designed to strengthen existing communities while protecting farms, forests, and other undeveloped land from sprawl. "How can I be a maverick," McCain joked, "if there are no more wide open spaces?" Walmart has pledged to spend a portion of its profits on a public education effort in support of the bill.
Asked by a reporter if he expected the new legislation to draw bipartisan support, McCain said, "There's a difference between strategy and tactics, my friends. Mick and I understand that, and I believe my friends in the Democrat party understand that, too." McCain went on to emphasize that "this cannot be a partisan issue. The era of partisan bickering for the sake of bickering is over. We may have differences over tactics with the other party but, when you have a difference with a fellow public servant, I believe in working it out privately."
In Washington, the White House issued a statement praising the two leaders and pledging to work with the veteran lawmaker in winning support for the legislation. "Arizona's basketball teams aren't worth squat," said hoopster-in-chief Obama. "But the state's favorite son has finally picked a winner this time."
Cindee McCain confirmed that she shared her husband's commitment to end sprawl, and that the couple's efforts to support traditional communities would be personal as well as political. Mrs. McCain announced that the pair was donating four of their seven homes to Enterprise Community Partners to be converted into affordable housing. "Three houses are enough for empty-nesters to live in. No one wants to engage in conspicuous consumption during hard times."
Duke closed the press conference on a personal note as well, saying that he was "so tired of having to drive or be driven all the time that [he] can't stand it. We don't want to end up like the guys on Wall Street, making money but in an unsustainable way." He finished by quoting the great jazz/blues songwriter Mose Allison: "You know, I love Mose, who grew up close to here, in Mississippi. We play his music all the time in our offices. But, just like his song says, we've been living in a Fool's paradise."
Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment. For more foolish posts, see his blog's home page.