Opponents face off over `retail sprawl'

The "guru of the anti Wal-Mart movement" has been invited to Hood River by the Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG).

Al Norman, author of "Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart" will face off with Amy Hill, Wal-Mart spokesperson, at high noon during the Rotary Club meeting on May 30.

Stu Watson, co-chair of CRG, said that is just one event in an educational campaign against "retail sprawl" being launched by the grassroots citizen group.

He reiterated that CRG did not form last fall specifically to fight Wal-Mart but has mounted an opposition to that "big box" plan since it is currently the only application on the table.

"Hood River already has a disproportionate amount of retail employment relative to the statewide average and that is creating a preponderance of low or minimum wage jobs," said Watson. "We've become this huge black hole for retailers because of our proximity to the state of Washington."

He said that because Oregon has no sales tax, many shoppers are drawn to Hood River from the neighboring state. That growing influx of customers, said Watson, has crowded commercial development around the freeway and bridge access.

He said CRG believes that economic growth should and must occur to sustain Hood River, with the first priority given toward expanding and retaining existing businesses. He said new growth should be "pro-actively" planned ahead so that it is distributed uniformly and complements the rural flavor of the river city.

Toward that end, Watson said CRG, which boasts 700 official members, has started an outreach effort to brighten up Hood River's dismal financial landscape. CRG is supporting the Hood River County Economic Development Committee's recommendation that an economic development officer be hired immediately to tie together multi-agency plans and work toward more expedient job creation.

To ensure that citizens are getting the best representation from their elected officials in growth management, CRG will host a candidates' night from 7 to 9 p.m. on April 24 at the Hood River Middle School. Contestants for both local and state offices have been invited to attend and answer questions posed by realtors, tourism promoters, school officials and agriculture representatives.

"We really want to foster more learning and dialogue in this community," said Watson.

CRG has also started a new "Neighbor-to-Neighbor" data base of business and professional residents. Watson said that these individuals are being invited to help market the attractions of Hood River to interested entrepreneurs.

"We have a lot of intelligent and experienced people who live in this community and want good things for it, so they are willing to contribute their time to help their neighbors," said Watson.

Meanwhile, CRG is "watching and waiting" to see how Wal-Mart addresses the county's 56 areas of concern on their application to build a 185,000 square foot store at the junction of Country Club and Frankton roads. Watson said CRG recently raised $15,000 through fundraising dinner/auction to hire technical or legal expertise if necessary when Wal-Mart presents its completed plans by mid-June.

"I think we're all in kind of a waiting mode," said Watson.

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