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Vermont Governor Takes Heat for Warming Up To Wal-Mart

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Environmentalists in New England were stunned recently when Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin publicly embraced a proposed Wal-Mart superstore as "good news" for his state.

Shumlin joins ranks with former Vermont Governor, Republican Jim Douglas, who stumped at a pro Wal-Mart rally in St. Albans, Vermont in January of 2010 -- cheerleading for the same developer who now has Governor Shumlin at his side.

This is the same Shumlin who has called for the shut-down of an aging nuclear power plant in southern Vermont, and described the power plant's owner, Entergy, as "not trustworthy."

This is the same Shumlin whose website lists "energy and the environment" as one of his top six priorities.

This is the same Shumlin who in 2010 opposed a Wal-Mart store near the Wilderness civil war battlefield in Virginia, where 1,200 Vermont soldiers died in 1864. "Our brave soldiers gave their lives to keep the country together, and end slavery," Shumlin said. "It would have been an awful loss to have that battlefield covered in the shadow of a Wal-Mart store."

Apparently the shadow of a Wal-Mart store across his own state is not a problem for Shumlin. On January 17, 2013, Democratic Governor Shumlin was featured on Wal-Mart New England's website:

The Walmart Corporation has signed a lease with developer Jeff Davis of Burlington to build Vermont's first Walmart Supercenter on Route 5 in Derby. Sunlight broke through morning clouds Tuesday, as Davis welcomed Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin...to the location of the proposed Walmart Supercenter...'This is an example of how we create jobs in the Kingdom,' Shumlin said to applause.

Derby Center Village had roughly 619 people in 2010. Its surrounding trade area is less than 5,000 people. The community has lost 12 percent of its population since 1990. It's a very small community in Orleans County on the northern edge of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, which economic planners have described as "a region that truly has a sense of place." Planners say two of the Northeast Kingdom's "critical problems" are a "lack of adequate income" and "absence of sufficient high skill jobs."

When it comes to big box sprawl, Shumlin apparently has a blind spot the size of a superstore parking lot. Shumlin is backing the same developer who has two Vermont Wal-Marts under his belt already -- both of them bitterly fought -- and is aiming now to build another one in the Northeast Kingdom.

Shumlin was quoted by the Associated Press as boasting that developer Jeff Davis' Wal-Mart plan was "good news" for this high unemployment region, and he's hopeful the Wal-Mart won't be greeted with a lot of opposition. But the Governor went even further. He said the Wal-Mart would bring 300 jobs and had "huge support" in Derby and surrounding towns.

In response, a spokesperson for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, which has done much of the legal work over the years to slow Wal-Mart down, said the developer's proposal was the wrong scale in the wrong place. The VNRC issued a statement saying:

We're especially disappointed to see the Governor supporting big box sprawl. We are very concerned that this development -- which is the wrong scale in the wrong place -- will undermine Newport City, one of the many downtowns that the State and so many others have been working hard to revitalize.

Residents in the city and town of St. Albans, Vt., who fought off several developers, including Jeff Davis, for nearly 20 years, have offered to help Derby defeat Vermont's first 145,000 square foot superstore. Opponents in St. Albans lost their epic battle in 2011 to protect a tract of farmland from Wal-Mart.

No construction on the St. Albans store has begun yet, but opponents say the new store will only detract from existing jobs, something Governor Shumlin apparently never learned. Shumlin critics also charge that the Governor has used his appointment powers to stack the deck with pro-big box commissioners on regional Environmental Review Boards.

According to anti-Wal-Mart activist Sue Prent of St. Albans, "Governor Shumlin is making precisely the same statements about Walmart coming to Derby that [Gov.]Jim Douglas made a decade ago about St. Albans. To this seasoned veteran of the Wal-Mart wars, Peter Shumlin might as well be a Republican... now he endorses the 'Walmartification' of Vermont."

In an article for the Green Mountain Daily, Prent added:

The Governor has disappointed me a-plenty over the past couple of years, but never more so than when he endorsed the completely false premise that Wal-Mart means local prosperity. He's 'hopeful it won't be greeted with lots of opposition' and hints darkly at 'forces outside the [Northeast] Kingdom' which he fears might get involved. I'm hopeful that there will be plenty of opposition; and as someone 'outside the Kingdom' I will welcome the opportunity to share all that we in the Northwest Citizens For Responsible Growth have learned throughout the past decade about how Wal-Mart impacts communities and how Mr. Davis works his way through the permit processes.

Prent notes that when Shumlin "had barely assumed office, aided in no small part by the efforts of progressive minded folks like myself who abhor the exploitation of Wal-Mart, the Governor made it clear that his loyalty is to the monied class of developers and pocket-padders."

Brushing aside our objections, he reappointed as [environmental board] commissioner, a man whose family business has recently re-located from downtown St. Albans City to Exit 20, so as to take advantage of the Wal-Mart and other potential development out there; all of which has been and will be under review by that commissioner. Not surprisingly, Davis' Wal-Mart slipped through Act 250 [environmental review process] like butter.

It must have taken some tortured logic for progressive Governor Shumlin to backslap one of the worst environmental corporate actors in America. There is green in Vermont's Green Mountains -- but not the kind that environmentalists and tourists flock to see. Numerous economic studies, including reviews done in Vermont as far back as 1993 (Williston) show that Wal-Mart is a form of economic cannibalism, that "captures" sales from local and regional retailers.

So where are the 300 jobs going to come from? Does Shumlin seriously think Vermonters are going to spend more money simply because they have another place to buy Chinese-made underwear? Cutting the retail pie thinner does not create net new jobs.

If economic dislocation is 'good news' to Shumlin, what about the enormously wasteful land consumption associated with big box development, and the traffic congestion? Vermont's existing land use patterns are antithetical to sprawl.

How odd that Shumlin is fighting corporate power at Vermont Yankee, yet shilling for Wal-Mart. Vermont has the lowest number of Wal-Marts per capita of any state in the nation. For economic and environmental reasons, Governor Shumlin should consider Wal-Mart as the retail equivalent of a nuclear power plant. A superstore in Derby would cast a shadow over the entire Northeast Kingdom, and cement Shumlin's image as the Governor of Sprawl.

Activist and author Al Norman has written 3 books about Wal-Mart. His most recent book is Occupy Walmart. He is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, and has been helping communities fight big box sprawl for two decades.