South wins an uncivil war battle

Under withering opposition from hundreds of historians, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. abruptly abandoned plans Wednesday to build a Supercenter near a hallowed Civil War site where Robert E. Lee first met Ulysses S. Grant on the field of battle in 1864.

Attorneys for the world’s largest retailer announced the decision in court on the eve of a trial that would have put Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson on the witness stand. He was to testify that a portion of the site 60 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., was a “nerve center” for the Battle of the Wilderness.

Wal-Mart, which had weathered two years of criticism by preservationists over the site, did not elaborate on its decision to withdraw plans for the store one day before the trial was to begin.

“We just felt it was the right thing to do,” said William C. Wertz, a spokesman for the Arkansas retailer. He said the company would seek another location in Orange County and compensate the county for its expenses in defending its decision to approve the store.

An industry analyst said Wal-Mart’s decision was based on “practical business reasons” and harks back to founder Sam Walton‘s credo that Wal-Mart should never build a store where it isn’t wanted.

Burt P. Flickinger III of Strategic Resource Group said it is rare for Wal-Mart to back away from a store once it has researched a location and settled on a site. But they may have wanted to avoid a continuing public relations hit at a time of disappointing sales and increased competition.

“To the company’s credit they decided to do something different,” said Flickinger, who said he is a Wal-Mart shareholder.

While clearly surprised by the decision, preservationists celebrated the turnaround and said the decision signals their resolve to protect America’s heritage.

“I hope this sends a message not only to Wal-Mart but to other developers that the preservation community is willing to fight for historic sites,” said Robert Rosenbaum, an attorney for residents and the preservation group.

Rosenbaum said he believed that the planned testimony by McPherson was key to the decision.

“On the historic issues, we believe we would have won,” he said.

The 143,000-square-foot store planned by the Bentonville, Ark.,-based retailer would have been outside the limits of the protected national park where the core battlefield is located. The company had argued the area was already dotted with retail locations and zoned for commercial use.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors in August 2009 approved the special use permit Wal-Mart needed to build the store. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, residents who live within three miles or less of the site and a group that maintains an historic estate on the battlefield challenged the approval.

They argued procedural issues but also that supervisors ignored or rejected the assistance of historians and other preservation experts when they approved the store’s construction in Locust Grove, about one mile from the entrance to the national park.

The Battle of the Wilderness is viewed by historians as a critical point when the Civil War started to turn in favor of the North. The war ended 11 months later. An estimated 185,000 Union and Confederate troops fought over three days in the Wilderness, leaving 30,000 killed, injured or missing.

Hundreds of historians, including McPherson, filmmaker Ken Burns and celebrities such as Robert Duvall had appealed to Wal-Mart to walk away from the 50-acre property and find another place to build in the rural county of less than 35,000 people.

McPherson wrote in a summary of his testimony that Grant’s headquarters and his senior leaders were encamped near the site of the proposed store and Union casualties were treated on the site or in an area destined to be a parking lot for the store.

“Among other things, thousands of wounded and dying soldiers occupied the then open fields that included the Walmart site, which is where many of the Union Army hospital tents were located during the battle,” McPherson wrote.

Wal-Mart and county officials argued that no significant battles occurred on the site.

But opposition to the store was unrelenting from preservation groups, who supplied maps of troop movements and maneuvers in a region that is dotted with Civil War battlefields.

“We have long believed that Wal-Mart would ultimately recognize that it is in the best interests of all concerned to move their intended store away from the battlefield,” said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust. “We applaud Walmart officials for putting the interests of historic preservation first. Sam Walton would be proud of this decision.”

The dispute was scheduled for an eight-day trial in Orange County Circuit Court. Wal-Mart’s decision to give up its special use permit was announced at the start of what was to be the second day of hearings on motions.

In this Aug. 7, 2009 file photo, a gravestone marker on the spot where the arm of General Stonewall Jackson is buried is near the Ellwood house in Locust Grove, Va. Civil War history will play out in a rural Virginia courtroom this week when Wal-Mart Stores Inc. defends a planned store near the hallowed site where Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant first met on a battlefield in 1864. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Wertz could not point to one reason for the retailer’s turnabout but said it came after continuing corporate discussions about balancing economic decisions and the concerns of preservationists.

While preservation groups battled the store, residents and some county officials had welcomed the convenience of a Supercenter and the jobs and tax revenue it would have generated for the county.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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6 Responses to "South wins an uncivil war battle"

  1. Carl Nemo  January 28, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    “An industry analyst said Wal-Mart’s decision was based on “practical business reasons” and harks back to founder Sam Walton‘s credo that Wal-Mart should never build a store where it isn’t wanted.” …extract from article

    I’m happy that Walmart backed off on this tasteless store siting. Too bad they don’t adhere to ol’ Sam’s admonition as quoted above in the majority of siting cases. It’s easy for them to payoff local yokels sitting on the town council, the mayor, city manager etc. in order to steamroll their sitings into an area.

    They’ve marched around this nation placing stores against local wishes, then destroying the smaller local businesses then even close down a store at a later date and move on elsewhere with the same tactic forcing people to drive 40 plus miles to the most available Walmart store since no local retailer is left to supply the goods they need.

    Sounds like the equivalency of the “Borg” referencing “Star Trek” episodes.

    Evidently for the world to survive financially speaking we must become one with this ‘Walmart entitity’…no? Scary indeed! China loves Walmart. Maybe Walmart is operated by hardcore, old fashioned “Red Commies”…? / : |

    Carl Nemo **==

    • logtroll  January 29, 2011 at 12:33 am

      Does a ‘Walmart entitity’ come with a functioning nipple?

      • Carl Nemo  January 29, 2011 at 12:53 am

        Yep, logtroll; ie., lotsa low paying jobs in the form of penurious ‘corporate milk’ , curdled and sour to the taste. / : |

        Carl Nemo **==

        • logtroll  January 29, 2011 at 8:27 am

          Maybe the Hooters ‘entitity’ business model is more viable, what with the focus on the ‘entitities’ themselves?

      • neondog  January 29, 2011 at 9:55 am

        A nipple? Surely they must have a nipple, our most reverent SCOTUS has granted them “personhood”?

  2. bogofree  January 29, 2011 at 9:56 am

    40″ HD TV was advertised at China Mart for an exceptionally low price. This was to be a Xmas present so I went to a local merchant to ask if he could match the price. “Sure but only if you don’t use a credit card.” So I bought locally. His margin was actually dependent upon siphoning out 2.5% to Visa or MC. Fine with me. You would be surprised at how close a local merchant can get to an advertised Wal-Mart product.

    Why is Wal-Mart such a success? It is an exceptional business model offering low priced goods and deals in incredible volume. If you want quality then good luck. Most folks shop with their wallets and not their brains – meaning quality of merchandise and produce.

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