Al Norman's battle against sprawl was supposed to be an 18-week commitment to help a friend on a city council.
Since then, Norman has crisscrossed the country and been dubbed the "guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" by "60 Minutes." That fact is highlighted on his Web site -- www.sprawl-busters.com.
Wednesday, Norman's travels will bring him to a 7 p.m. community forum on sprawl and superstores in the Brainerd High School cafeteria. His visit is sponsored by the Brainerd Lakes Area Coalition for Responsible Development, which was established about a year ago.
Coalition members feared the area was ripe for a superstore at that time and suggested a moratorium or an ordinance limiting a store's size to 100,000 square feet and requiring an Economic Impact Statement be conducted before a large development is approved or denied.
Ed Shaw, coalition president, said the group was helped by donations and fund-raisers to pay Norman's $2,800 speaker fee, plus transportation and lodging. Shaw said the coalition wanted Norman because he was one of the first recognized activists to be involved in the issues of sprawl and superstores and continues to be an expert on the subject.
Norman's passion for the subject began in 1993 when Wal-Mart went to his hometown of Greenfield, Mass. Success in keeping Wal-Mart from that community with a 2000 population of 18,168 dramatically changed what Norman called being dragged in accidentally to an issue that is part of his nights and weekends a decade later.
"So 10 years later I'm still caught up in the issues," he said, noting it turned out to be a compelling subject that was not about stores at all.
"It's who we want to be as a people and what we want the landscape to look like," he said. And in the process it is about big corporations.
In the past 10 years, Norman has talked to what he estimates are hundreds of communities. But the number he actually visits is small with much of the work now done over the Internet.
Norman is the editor of the monthly Sprawl-Busters Alert. In preparation for his lakes area visit, triggered by a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in Baxter, Norman has been researching the area.
Third in series
SUNDAY -- Defining the issues. Views from national experts, opponents and proponents, as well as Wal-Mart. Reaction from Hibbing residents regarding their supercenter.
MONDAY -- Experience from other cities -- Hibbing, Detroit Lakes and Tomah, Wis. What a national expert estimates will happen here if a supercenter joins the retail development.
TODAY -- Preview of Wednesday night speaker, anti-Wal-Mart activist Al Norman, whose appearance is sponsored by an area coalition to speak in Brainerd.
WEDNESDAY -- Baxter City Council members' thoughts on supercenter. Status of proposed project in the city.
THURSDAY -- Results from Wednesday's community forum at Brainerd High School with guest speaker Al Norman.
He plans to share economic numbers regarding Crow Wing County at the Wednesday forum. And he plans to talk about facts and figures from other parts of the country. He said the information will be for the heart and the head.
Norman said the way to say no to the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in Baxter is based on an existing city document and the language in the city's own comprehensive plan written in 1996.
"This will be the largest retail building in the history of Baxter," Norman said in a phone interview from Massachusetts. "... I believe a project of this scale is incompatible with the comprehensive plan and the intent of the (Baxter) zoning code."
A neighborhood market would be a better fit, Norman said. Wal-Mart's newest creation is a neighborhood market. Much smaller than a supercenter, the market is a mix of fresh food and the fastest-moving items of general merchandise. The markets, nearly 40 of them, have gone into smaller markets, inner city neighborhoods and China.
The issue for the lakes area, Norman said, is how does a project of the Wal-Mart Supercenter's magnitude fit in with the comprehensive plan and zoning goals.
"It's the wrong size and it's in the wrong place," Norman said, adding those are fatal problems for the project. "The problem here is you are trying to get an elephant down to the size of a dog and you just can't do it."
In Minnesota, Norman predicts there will be more "dark stores" as older, regular Wal-Mart discount stores are closed. He said as of February there were five such stores in the state in Albert Lea, Burnsville, Faribault, Hastings and Owatonna for 423,000 square feet of empty space. He said a year ago there were three such abandoned stores.
And he said the number of Wal-Mart discount stores is actually declining in the state, down from 37 in 2001 to 34 in 2002. By contrast, he said the number of Wal-Mart Supercenters grew from one in 2000 to seven two years later. Norman has consulted with cities in Minnesota before.
He said the level of citizen activity in 1993 is nothing compared to the activity now where even the shadow of a Wal-Mart is enough to get people talking.
About 20 to 30 percent of stores proposed are being fought today, Norman said.
"To me the dimensions, the issues raised here are emblematic of small town versus big company," Norman said. "It's hard for me to say no to that kind of struggle even if the odds are against the local community.
"... The story appealed to me and I had the time to do it."
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