BY MATT WERBACH | HOOD RIVER CORRESPONDENT
Walmart aims to expand its footprint in the Columbia Gorge, where small-town main street businesses and restrictive land use planning have ruled for decades.
Following earlier attempts in the past two years, the Big Box company is trying once again to gain approval for the expansion of their current Hood River store on Wasco Avenue to allow enough space for a full grocery. The company was denied the permits to expand but is now appealing the decision.
In The Dalles, Walmart will likely be allowed to build a superstore of well over 100,000 square feet on the west side of town near Chenoweth Creek and the surrounding wetlands.
Walmart is aggressively seeking to grow its impact in the gorge — despite the competition. Hood River already has two large chain grocery stores, Rosauers and Safeway, as well as a few boutique stores like Farm Stand in the Gorge and Mother's Marketplace. The Dalles is home to Safeway, Fred Meyer, Cash and Carry and the Grocery Outlet among others,
Citizen opposition and local business groups have formed in both gorge towns to oppose Walmart's proposed projects. In The Dalles, Citizens for Responsible Development is attempting to stop the superstore from breaking ground in the environmentally sensitive area. Chenoweth Creek is a salmon-spawning ground and a tributary to the Columbia.
“I look at them as a corporate citizen, and they are just the worst,” says Becky Brun, executive director of Hood River Citizens for a Local Economy (HRCLE), a local business advocacy group. Brun cites Walmart’s labor practices and the company's lack of involvement in the local community as key reasons for her opposition. Walmart’s low prices and deep pockets also pose clear challenges to local small business and even to mega-stores like Safeway, Burn says. “Walmart is known to put a lot of people out of business."
Hood River's Walmart is located in a light industrial zone, and HRCLE is using existing land use regulations to try and stop the expansion. Allowed uses in a light industrial zone have changed since the original store was built, Brun says.
For its part, Walmart is arguing that they are simply completing what they started when the store was built in 1991. The company believes they have a vested right to add the grocery. Brun believes the Hood River City Council's 4-3 vote denying the grocery expansion in 2012 will hold fast despite the appeal. The Walmart Supercenter in The Dalles will likely be approved and built, she says.
Walmart isn't the only corporate giant seeking to expand in the Gorge. In June, search engine giant Google applied for and quickly received a variance for the height restrictions on buildings along the Columbia River in The Dalles. However, Google has yet to announce specific plans to expand or build at the site. The company apparently applied for the variance so there would be no hurdle to a two-story building project if they eventually decide to take action. Google's name has cachet and the company has a reputation for creating quality jobs and bringing in considerable tax revenue, all of which may explain the relative lack of citizen opposition to any expansion that might take place in the future.
Matt Werbach is a freelance writer based in Hood River.
Image courtesy of Becky Brun.