There were no noisy Wal-Mart cheers or smiling, blue-vested greeters at Wednes-day's community forum on Wal-Mart at Brainerd High School, but criticism of the discount retailer's proposed supercenter in Baxter was low-key.
The crowd of between 250 and 300 listened attentively for more than 90 minutes as anti-Wal-Mart activist Al Norman contended that Wal-Mart and other big-box retailer developments are detrimental to communities and run counter to both Baxter's comprehensive plan and to the Highway 371 corridor plan.
No one spoke in favor of the development at the forum.
The crowd was an unusual mix of Brainerd area merchants, longtime community activists and a few young people. As they entered the school cafeteria, audience members had the chance to pick up anti-Wal-Mart literature and register for a drawing for a hanging plant donated by Erickson Greenhouse, a locally owned business that has been in Brainerd for more than 100 years.
Ashlee Johnson, 17, a Brainerd High School junior, planned to write a paper on the meeting for her government class.
"I think it would be kind of cool to have a supercenter," she told a reporter before the meeting.
Elaine Jensen Chesley, an opponent of the Wal-Mart Supercenter, compared the makeup of the crowd to that of people who protested against an ill-fated plan to generate and store nuclear power in Aitkin County in the 1970s.
"This looks like a pretty good issue," said the longtime fluoride opponent. "I hope they (Wal-Mart opponents) are successful. Myself, I wouldn't shop there."
The north Brainerd woman stopped short of predicting success for the anti-Wal-Mart group, reflecting on some of her struggles and noting that the powers that be often win such battles.
"I'm pretty impressed with the vigor and enthusiasm of this group," she said.
Norman's criticism of the Wal-Mart Supercenter was received warmly by most of those attending. He garnered considerable applause when he lamented the possibility that Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan would be replaced by a Kohl's store and urged people to "save the ox -- dump the box."
Michael Duval of Merrifield said after the forum that the issue goes beyond opposition to Wal-Mart. It's about retail saturation.
"I think we're there," he said.
Brad Holland, vice president of operations for Triangle Oil in Baxter, noted court cases in which Wal-Mart has been accused of engaging in predatory pricing of gasoline in order to drive out its rivals.
"Competition is good if it's fair competition," he said. "I don't think it's (the supercenter) good for the area."
Ed Shaw of the Coalition for Responsible Development described Norman's presentation as awesome and contended the audience included many new people who had not previously been involved in opposition to the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter.
Mykel Barthel, owner of Erickson Greenhouse, was optimistic the new Wal-Mart could be stopped "if everybody doesn't go home and forget about it."
The forum's main speaker, Norman, judged the crowd to be decidedly anti-Wal-Mart and thought the city of Baxter had grounds to stop the project.
"You can grow without doing this," he said. "I would call this a cancerous form of retail development."
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