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Al Norman

Al Norman

Posted: July 31, 2008 08:03 PM

43 Presidents Vs. Wal-Mart


Superstore Threatens Quirky Collection of Presidential Heads

Move over, Abe. Step aside, George W.

Wal-Mart Realty has chosen a number of bizarre locations upon which to build their sprawling, featureless boxes. The retailer seems to have a fetish for historically significant properties -- like the Hyde Park, New York parcel abutting the estate of F.D.R. Or Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Wal-Mart was bought out of Ferry Farm by a private foundation. But none of these sites is stranger than the address at 211 Water Country Parkway in Williamsburg, Virginia. It's not the water park that Wal-Mart wants -- that's across the road. It's a unique, quirky piece of Americana known as Presidents Park.

This unusual tourist attraction features larger than life white concrete busts of some of America's most powerful men. According to the Virginia Gazette, Wal-Mart has its eye on Presidents Park, which describes itself as a "patriotic, educational, and inspiring experience." The Park features 16-18 foot high busts of all 43 American Presidents. Each bust includes handy narrative information on these White House denizens, including their height and weight. The full collection is the creation of artist/sculptor David Adickes, who once fabricated an eight foot tall bronze statue of George H.W. Bush, which today graces Bush International Airport in Houston. Adickes is less well-known for his 76 foot high statue of Sam Houston, which is a landmark in Huntsville, Texas. Perhaps the least known of his creations are the 43 Heads of State in Presidents Park, across Route 199 from the water park. One tourist called this collection of Famous Men "a strange American version of Easter Island."

But Presidents Park caught Wal-Mart's fancy, and if the retailer filibusters long enough, the presidents assembled may have to find new digs. The owner of Presidents Park, Harley Newman, doesn't want to sell the land, but one of his partners has passed away, and the heirs don't want anything to do with the 43 Presidents. Newman has not taken the big step yet of selling to Wal-Mart, but if the smell of money is stronger than the Park's mission of "encouraging civic responsibility and involvement," none of the Presidents are safe.

"We don't have a contract with anyone yet," Newman told the Gazette. If Wal-Mart buys the land, it will sit directly across from a huge "lifestyle center" that is under development, called the Marquis Shopping Center. A developer already has approval to build an 800,000 square foot retail complex. One York County, Virginia Commissioner has called the Marquis center "a new dimension, a lifestyle shopping center that we don't have in York County." The center is expected to attract retailers like JC Penney, Best Buy and Dick's Sporting Goods. None of this is particularly compatible with 43 large heads.

But one local commercial real estate broker is fighting to protect Presidents Park, and reject Wal-Mart. Chris Henderson, a member of the James City County Planning Commission, told the Gazette that Presidents Park adds value to the region. "I think it would be a shame to lose it for the sake of another big-box store," Henderson argues. He's trying to attract investors who would set up a non-profit to run the Park. "Then it would have an educational mission." But Wal-Mart has an educational mission too. It wants to improve the math score of its stock.

Parcel owner Newman says he doesn't want to sell out the Presidents either. "My loyalty is to Presidents Park," he told the newspaper. After all, business at the park seems to be good. Newman said attendance rose 20% last year. "It hasn't been the immediate success that I'd hoped for, and the investors had hoped for, when we opened," he admits. Newman says that one developer has approached him to build a presidential-themed hotel near the park. Instead of shopping in the house wares aisle of Wal-Mart, visitors would have the rare opportunity to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom -- just like a major campaign donor. Newman wants $4 million for the land underneath Presidents Park.

You don't have to be a fan of the current occupant of the Oval Office to appreciate the unique destination value of Presidents Park. Henderson says that Presidents Park has never received its proper respect as a piece of economic development. But this much is certain: Presidents Park will never steal sales away from existing merchants, never outsource jobs to China, and never worsen our foreign trade deficit. Unlike Wal-Mart, its 100% Made in America. And it's a much better use of concrete than any purpose Wal-Mart has found.

The future of Presidents Park could rest in the hands of the York County Supervisors. Tom Shepperd, Chairman of the Supervisors, could lead an effort to rezone the land "tourist/commercial," or limit the size of any retail use of the land. Wal-Mart's interest in this particular property raises the question: Does everything quirky and unique about America have to be displaced to make way for yet another big box store? There are already Wal-Mart supercenters near this site in Gloucester, Newport News, and Yorktown, Virginia. There's a Wal-Mart discount store in Williamsburg just minutes away. It would be a shame to move Presidents Park just to pave over another piece of colorful Virginia character.

It was insult enough when Wal-Mart tried to build on Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of our First President. Now the giant retailer is taking on all 43 Presidents at once. George Bush, as a final Executive Act, should declare this site culturally significant to the American people, and divert $4 million from the war in Iraq to purchase it on behalf of the American people. Wal-Mart should not be allowed to leave our presidents homeless. As one tourist said in 2004, after visiting Presidents Park: "I'm not sure why the creator felt this is a necessary project, but I enjoyed my visit, and would recommend it to anyone traveling through the area... There's a snack bar and picnic tables, so you can eat/drink and bask in Presidential history."

Isn't that worth more than a cheap pair of underwear?

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, and the author of "The Case Against Wal-Mart." Ten years of his stories can be found at www.sprawl-busters.com