Council hears public dissent on Super Wal-Mart project

By Thomas Wilson

   A group of local citizens are objecting to the development of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Elizabethton.
   On Wednesday, one citizen requested the project be blocked by the Elizabethton City Council -- a request that may be moot since the council seems essentially powerless to stop construction.
   "Is bigger always better?" Hobie Hyder, an employee of WBEJ radio in Elizabethton, asked the council at Wednesday's council meeting. "The only thing bringing a super Wal-Mart to Elizabethton will do is bust small businesses."
   Hyder urged the council to block the entry of the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter into Elizabethton. He stated that he had talked with representatives of Ingle's, White's Fresh Foods, and Winn-Dixie supermarkets among others.
   He also presented a petition with what he said were over 700 signatures of those who oppose a Supercenter in Elizabethton.
   Mayor Sam LaPorte questioned the logic of keeping out a Wal-Mart Supercenter from stores that entered the market some years ago to compete against mom-and-pop grocery stores. He also noted that Ingle's and Winn-Dixie were chains competing regionally and nationally with Wal-Mart.
   "How would they have felt if someone had come up and asked the council not to let them come into town?" LaPorte asked. "Could not that same argument be made about these stores with the locally-owned grocery stores we used to have?"
   Councilman Richard Sammons spoke about his family's own role as small business owners and the competitive environment his father faced years ago.
   "This nation has been built on competition," said Sammons. "I am so sick of government intervention into competition."
   Food-City supermarkets are based in Abingdon, Va., with stores in three states. White's Fresh Foods is locally-owned and headquartered in Johnson City with approximately 19 stores, primarily located in Northeast Tennessee.
   Carrie Bernier, director of human resources for White's, Inc., spoke before the council and cited the company's hiring and advancement of employees in Elizabethton from minimum wage jobs to mid-management level positions. White's operates two markets -- on Stateline Road and West Elk Avenue -- in Elizabethton.
   Bernier said many of the company's 800 full- and part-time associates were comprised of Elizabethton and Carter County residents who had come up through the company's ranks to enjoy advanced roles in the company's operation. Her concern was for the local job pool associates need to operate stores, she said.
   "What we are concerned about is the number of associates to fill positions," said Bernier. "We have appreciated being a part of this community for many years and hope to be for years to come."
   Another vocal citizen was Charles VonCannon, owner of the Bemberg Industrial property lying immediately behind the existing Wal-Mart store. VonCannon also suggested he could initiate legal action against the city if the Wal-Mart project went forward for what he indicated was a neglect to his rights as a property owner.
   "The attorney is hired," VonCannon told the council, "and check my track record if you don't believe I will."
   What, exactly, the council can actually do as a legislative body to block the Supercenter proposal is limited at best. The Elizabethton Regional Planning Commission approved by a vote of 5 to 2 a site plan for the Wal-Mart Supercenter on a 22-acre tract of the North American Corporation property on Feb. 4, 2003.
   The corporation must acquire building and electrical permits from the city to construct the Supercenter and pass all fire and building codes once the structure is constructed.
   City Manager Charles Stahl said that since the Wal-Mart proposal did not request a rezoning of the property, the council and city administration did not have the legislative authority to block the store from entering the city.
   In other business, the council voted 6-0 to create an industrial bond board under the auspices of the city government.
   The board's membership included Carmella Price, Russ Swanay, Ken Carter, Bob Lipford, Tim Broyles, Manual Bandarra and Haynes Elliott, executive director of the Economic Development Commission. Elliott was bounced from the county's industrial bond board last year when commissioners voted three new members to the board and did not re-appoint him.