Big box, county attorney top agenda

Late April hearing for big box bill

by Lester Chang – THE GARDEN ISLAND

A representative for Wal-Mart and a government watchdog yesterday offered pros and cons for a bill limiting the size of big box stores as the Kaua‘i County Council scheduled an April 25 public hearing on the issue.

Brian Halsey, the market manager for Wal-Mart, said the council’s approval of a bill to restrict retail and wholesale stores to no more than 75,000 square feet in resort, commercial and industrial areas would ensure residents will continue to pay higher prices.

“The law is about protecting a few businesses,” Halsey said during a meeting of the council at the historic County Building Thursday.

Kaua‘i resident Ken Taylor said allowing Wal-Mart to expand its 119,000-square-foot Lihu‘e store by Wilcox Hospital into a 200,000-square-foot Supercenter will kill long-established supermarket chains and island stores selling distinct local products.

“The problem you should look at is that some existing businesses may only have to lose five to 20 percent of their existing business to go out of business,” Taylor said.

The council won’t hold a public hearing until late April, but allowed for public comment.

Before the two spoke, the council approved an amendment from councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura to consolidate bills from the council, and Mayor Bryan Baptiste, into one bill and to establish building-size limitations to resort areas.

Yukimura wondered why Wal-Mart would build the state’s first Wal-Mart Supercenter on Kaua‘i when its population is only about 80,000 including some 18,000 visitors found on the island on any given day.

She said a better place for the center would be O‘ahu — the center of the state’s commerce and home to more than 800,000 persons.

Wal-Mart has done its studies and believes Kaua‘i has a lot of potential, Halsey said. Another reason for bringing the center to Kaua‘i is “obviously, we’d like to grow everywhere we can,” Halsey said.

Wal-Mart plans to build another Supercenter on the Big Island in the future as well, Halsey said.

Councilwoman Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho said council members have concerns about the enlarged Wal-Mart store because “we are looking at the impacts to the community.”

Halsey said Wal-Mart, for instance, could build a 60,000-square-foot Supercenter, similar to those on the Mainland.

But construction of a smaller building separate from the existing Wal-Mart store would not be as economically viable, he said.

The best option would be to have the Supercenter “under one roof,” Halsey said.

The bill is not intent on targeting Wal-Mart, drafters say, only preserving the rural character of Kaua‘i, Yukimura said. The county has proven that by limiting the height of hotels to four stories, she said.

Halsey said Wal-Mart’s proposed project would be just as the Wal-Mart store is today — a one-story, low-rise structure. The only difference is that the new store would be more spread out and would be more pleasing to look at, he said.

“(The design) would make that store look like a beautiful store on the outside,” said Halsey, who was joined by Lihu‘e store manager Janie Whitehead and David Sayre, president of Sayre Public Relations in Honolulu.

He said the public demand for the expansion exists, as customers “told us they wanted us to add the grocery component.”

A national survey found Wal-Mart prices are typically 17 percent lower than that of supermarkets where Wal-Mart Supercenters are located, Halsey said.

Wal-Mart helps Hawai‘i’s economy by doing business with more than 480 suppliers, and providing 17,000 jobs.

In addition, 40 percent of the store merchandise, including pasteurized milk and bread made in Hawai‘i — comes from

Hawai‘i vendors, Halsey said.

Halsey said Wal-Mart has been a good neighbor in the more than 10 years it has been on Kaua‘i, making financial contributions to community projects and providing employment for 375 residents.

Wal-Mart also can build a self-sustaining and energy-efficient building with skylights, Halsey said.

The idea of Wal-Mart shipping goods 1,500 to 2,000 miles to Hawai‘i with oil-based fuels that are gradually depleting worldwide, runs counter “to the idea of sustainability in my opinion,” Yukimura said.

Halsey stressed, however, that Wal-Mart is among the largest retailers in the world that have aspired to be “self-sustaining.”

Taylor said big box stores like Wal-Mart are the enemy of small business and communities.

When the big box stores start

to dominate communities and businesses start to disappear, they will raise their prices, he said.

Wal-Mart can sell items cheaply because it exploits the working class people of the Third World and “destroys lives,” Taylor said.

He said he supported Yukimura’s amendment to the bill, but felt the 75,000-square-foot building limitation was still too large.

Taylor also recommended the council members read publications and position papers by the International Mass Retail Association on the impact of big box stores before making any decisions on the bill.

One publication is entitled “Big Box Sprawl” by Constance Beaumont and Leslie Tucker.

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