In the wake of Vancouver city council's rejection of a big-box Wal-Mart outlet, another controversy is brewing on northern Vancouver Island, the next B.C. beachhead for the U.S.-based retail giant.
While some Vancouver city councillors linked Wal-Mart to sweatshop labour practices and the "satanic nature of giant multinational corporations," for the Campbell River Indian Band, which would own the property if the development goes ahead, the store represents badly needed land for housing and a big step on the road to economic self-sufficiency.
Opposing the development are a vocal chorus of environmental and community groups - expressing concern not with the impact the big-box retailer might have on the local business community, but on Wal-Mart's selection of a site near the environmentally sensitive Campbell River estuary.
The proposal requires the land, currently owned by forest company TimberWest, to be rezoned for commercial development. The band holds first option on the land and if the rezoning is approved, will allow construction of an 111,135-sq.-ft. Wal-Mart store on the property, with another 40,000 sq. ft. reserved for future expansion.
Three nights of passionate public hearings wrapped up last week, and at press time Campbell River council was set to give the rezoning third and final reading and a vote on July 4. If the store gets the green light, it could open by late 2006.
The Campbell River Indian Band holds the option on the 33-acre TimberWest property, of which 13 acres would be developed by Wal-Mart. The remaining 20 acres would be used to build lots needed to alleviate a serious housing crunch the band is facing, as many of its members have decided to return home to the community.
Chief Bob Pollard says Wal-Mart has promised training and jobs for band members and members of other local First Nations communities, and Pollard says the development represents a much-needed economic boost for the area.
"The majority of our community wants to come back here now, so we're trying to develop new property (for housing), but we have to be able to get into economic development too," says Pollard. "We have to be self-sufficient somewhere down the line."
The band currently has 611 members, with 350 of them living on the reserve. Campbell River has a population of more than 30,000 residents.
On the environmental side, Pollard says the band has worked closely with Wal-Mart to make sure the development is environmentally friendly.
Noting the local estuary committee's guideline that buildings be 30 metres away from the estuary, Pollard notes that at its nearest point, the development is 75 metres away. The building has also been redesigned with an array of "green" features.
"Where Wal-Mart is going to go we have no concerns, it's not part of the estuary," says Pollard. "We've gone overboard and we've far exceeded any demands the city council and estuary committee wanted. We say there is no environmental impact whatsoever."
The band also developed the Discovery Shopping Centre near the estuary, and Pollard says they've invested more than $1.4 million in band funds over the years to enhance and protect the area.
"We've been here for many years, First Nations aren't going anywhere," says Pollard. "People across the street can come and go, but we're not going anywhere."
Tiffany Duzita of FirstPro Shopping Centres, the developer brought in by Wal-Mart, says they have complied with all the requests for information from council, including a retail impact study, a habitat study, and an integrated stormwater management study.
She says the building was moved further back from the estuary to address the concerns raised, and their stormwater management plan will meet or exceed local, provincial and federal standards.
"We've addressed all of the concerns that have been raised to us by staff and council," says Duzita, adding there has been support in the community as well. "We've got some support in the area and the business community."
When the initial development plans put the store 26 metres away from the river, district councillor Morgan Ostler was one of the first to raise concerns about the potential impact, both environmentally on the estuary and visually on the beauty of the area and the Myrt Thompson Trail, which runs behind the site.
"I have never expressed public concern for Wal-Mart coming to the community. That is not the issue," says Ostler.
As a member of a group formed to protect the estuary, Ostler says its focus is on protecting a heritage river that is home to seven species of salmon. She says more than $9 million and countless volunteer hours have been spent restoring the river to pristine condition.
"This river has worldwide recognition," says Ostler. "The idea of having a retail building and parking lot that covers 12 acres on the estuary upland is our greatest concern."
Ostler says Wal-Mart's site changes and green building techniques have failed to impress her. While the main building was moved further back, she notes the plans show the land now earmarked for future expansion is again closer to the estuary.
Another issue for Ostler is stormwater management, noting the property is classified as a flood plain. With high tides and a winter storm, she says, the system Wal-Mart has proposed will quickly back up.
"That surface contamination from cars, like anti-freeze, will all end up washing into the river which runs alongside," says Ostler.
Campbell River Mayor Lynn Nash hasn't come down on either side in the debate, saying he was waiting for the public hearings to wrap up before he made his decision, and it would be inappropriate for him to comment before the public had its say.
"When people elect us they want to see some open-mindedness, and they want to see healthy discussion before we come to an objective decision," says Nash.
The Campbell River Chamber of Commerce is also walking a fine line, with president Maureen Brinson saying it has nothing against Wal-Mart coming to town, but does oppose the rezoning.
"The chamber supports all businesses in our community and its members," says Brinson. "We're prepared and are ready to help our existing members and businesses in town with training and workshops to help deal with the big-box store issue."
Brinson says the chamber doesn't support the proposed rezoning, not wanting to see it reclassified for commercial development.
"A lot of our members had a lot of input in developing the official community plan and we support the existing community plan as it is," says Brinson.
While Campbell River council prepared to render a verdict on Wal-Mart's fate in the river city, Vancouver city council across the Georgia Strait said "no" to what would have been the first Wal-Mart in the city.
The 8-3 vote ends a five-year battle that saw Wal-Mart submit a number of environmentally friendly building designs. The final design included rainwater toilets and mechanical systems powered by windmills, but it wasn't enough to overcome community and neighbourhood groups determined to keep the big-box retailer out of their community.
(Jeff Jedras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)