by Bob Snell
Updated 11 months ago
At issue was Wal-Mart's plan to build a supercenter at NW 53rd Avenue and U.S. 441 near the headwaters of Hogtown Creek, a narrow, often-neglected stream that meanders through the college town. At the center of the controversy were city commissioners, whose infighting over business and zoning matters has grown increasingly vitriolic.
After a long and heated debate, Wal-Mart came out on the losing end of what many saw as a surprise decision. Citing concerns about the project's impact on the quality of the creek and sales at nearby businesses, commissioners voted 5-2 against the plan.
The Gainesville fight is the latest pitting the retail giant against northeast Florida residents and politicians. In Jacksonville, Southside residents have sued to keep Wal-Mart out, while residents of another congested area have questioned the city's decision to allow a supercenter and Super Target store at the same intersection. In the past several years, leaders have also rejected Wal-Mart stores in Mayport and Fernandina Beach.
Of course, not everyone cringes when Wal-Mart calls. In Baker County, a Wal-Mart distribution center has been hailed as the rural county's most important employer. The center has steadily added workers. In Alachua, not far from where Wal-Mart's Gainesville store met its demise, city commissioners are working closely with the company as it builds a distribution center near I-75.
Wal-Mart representatives told Gainesville commissioners they were counting on landing the 91-acre Hogtown Creek site, and for many weeks it appeared the company would get its way.
But at a tumultuous final meeting in June, City Commissioner Tony Domenech -- an early Wal-Mart supporter -- voted against altering the city's comprehensive plan to allow the store. Domenech cited his loyalty to local businesses and concern about undisclosed plans for the site.
Commissioner Chuck Chestnut, another early supporter, cited a series of national controversies -- including a gender-discrimination suit against the chain -- before voting against the final plan. "There is a perception that Wal-Mart has fallen short of being a good corporate citizen," Chestnut said.