Big box battle wages on in front of Planning Comission

Top representatives from Big Save and Ishihara Market squared off against Wal-Mart executives yesterday on four bills to limit the size of future big box stores on Kaua‘i.

During public county Planning Commission hearings at the Lihu‘e Civic Center, Wal-Mart officials, joined by residents and more than 20 employees, said approval of the legislation to limit stores to 75,000 square feet would prevent the company from bringing the widest selection of goods at the lowest prices to Kaua‘i consumers.

“I am against having a size restriction on any of the businesses,” said Dewey Burson of Kapa‘a. “And I will tell you why: I believe in free enterprise.”

But Ray Ishihara of Waimea’s Ishihara Market said the potential impact of a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Kaua‘i would “be devastation to our economy and unique island lifestyle.”

Charles Kawakami of Big Save Stores said stores in rural areas of the island may go under if residents decide to shop en masse at big box stores in Lihu‘e.

The commission made no decision on the bills, but will send a recommendation later to the full council for vote.

The bills — reflecting the will of Mayor Bryan Baptiste and the Kaua‘i County Council — would restrict retail and wholesale stores to no more than 75,000 square feet of gross floor area in resort, commercial and industrial areas.

Approval of the legislation would affect Wal-Mart’s plans to convert its store in Lihu‘e into a “Supercenter,” expanding its inventory to include a full line of groceries at discounted prices.

Derek Kawakami said he supports passage of the bills to protect a local lifestyle he grew up in and cherished, and wants to see passed onto his children.

“It is the people, the unique communities, the pace of life and our island lifestyle and culture that give life to Kaua‘i,” he said. “Not necessarily low prices.”

Kauaians have traditionally shopped in the neighborhoods they live in, he said, but more big boxes “will affect our way of life.”

Charles Kawakami said big box stores are a juggernaut that will roll over small supermarkets, given the chance.

“It is a matter of volume,” he said. “These big box stores are huge. They are bigger than General Motors.”

Ishihara said more big box stores would mean “you would lose a lot of unique businesses that offer our community their unique goods and services.”

Support for the bill also came from Dr. Rick Gooding of the Westside.

“The big box store is very much in the worst interest of our community,” he said. “It threatens our independent and local-owned businesses, hardware stores, sporting goods, shops, pharmacies and various other local retailers.”

Gooding said a study shows that between 1983 and 1993, when Wal-Mart opened its first store in Iowa and expanded to 45 superstores, Iowa lost “555 grocery stores, 591 hardware and building supply stores, 161 variety stores, 88 department stores, 291 apparel stores.”

Anahola resident Tracey Schazone also voiced support for size restrictions for big box stores.

“Big box stores don’t fit into the theme of sustainability for Kaua‘i,” said the member of Sustainable Kaua‘i Coalition, which educates the public about island sustainability.

Gov. Linda Lingle, Schazone said, talked to Kaua‘i farmers about preserving water for ranchers and farmers, and water would be taken away from them if more big box stores open.

In defense of Wal-Mart’s expansion plan, Kevin McCall, manager of public affairs for Wal-Mart in Hawai‘i, said residents have embraced the store in the 11 years it has operated.

McCall said the focus of the public hearing should be about what’s best for the community rather than big store versus small store.

“We believe the value we bring, as far as goods, selection of goods and prices, is a benefit to a community where you have got the highest inflation in the country and the cost of living is among the highest in the country,” he said.

McCall said the way to drive down prices is by having the Wal-Mart Supercenter “under one roof.”

Commissioner Sandi Kato-Klutke seemed to side with Wal-Mart’s expansion plans and those who oppose size restrictions.

Kato-Klutke asked why would it be necessary to limit the size of food production facilities, for instance, to 75,000 square feet if it will help support Kaua‘i’s agricultural industry.

“This is not a big store versus one other store issue,” she said.

If anything, the Planning Department can limit the size of big box stores during the permitting process, she said.

Burson said having superstores on Kaua‘i is a part of progress that cannot be denied.

“There was a time when there were no doctors here, there was a time when there were things you could not buy here, no telephones,” he said. “There are all things that have happened over the last 100 years that have made it better now.”

Baptiste submitted his two bills to the council in October, a few days after Costco opened its newest store in Hawai‘i and first on Kaua‘i.

Three other Costco stores operate on O‘ahu, and a fourth operates on the Big Island.

Baptiste said he felt big box stores don’t reflect the rural feel of the island.

In addition to the proposed 75,000-square-feet restriction of wholesale and retail outlets, Baptiste’s other bill would impose the same restrictions in limited or general industrial districts. The bills also would apply to retail or wholesale business that have multiple operations within 800 feet of each other.

The council proposed more anti-big box legislation within days of the mayor’s submittal. Their bills more or less mirror those of the mayor’s, but were to include language that would explain further why the restrictions should become law.

• Lester Chang, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or lchang@kauaipubco.com.

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