GREENFIELD, Mass.--Al Norman has been fighting to keep Walmart and other big-box retailers out of small towns like this one for 25 years. He's been successful in Greenfield, his hometown and the site of his first battle with Walmart, and in dozens of other towns across the country--victories he documents on his website Sprawl-Busters, an "International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information." Partly because of Norman's efforts to keep out such stores, Greenfield still has a Main Street with dozens of businesses, including a bookstore, a record store, and Wilson's, one of the last independently owned department stores in the country.
Al Norman is a self-admitted intruder. Here's his problem:
Greenfield and other towns across New England are learning that while they might have been able to keep out big-box stores through zoning changes and old-fashioned advocacy, there's not much they can do about consumers' shift to e-commerce. They can't physically keep out e-commerce stores--which don't have a physical presence in towns that residents could push back against--and they certainly can't restrict residents' internet access. "It's one thing for me to try and fight over land use in the town I live in, or in somebody else's town," Norman told me, over lunch in a diner on Greenfield's Main Street. "But e-shopping creates a real problem for activists, because on some level, shopping online is a choice people make, and it's hard to intrude yourself in that." (italics added)
And he did his best to intrude:
For the residents of Greenfield in particular, the decline of small businesses is hard to bear because the town has a history of resisting national companies that have tried to come in and set up shop. The first anti-Walmart battle, in the mid-1990s, was prompted after the town council rezoned a plot of land, thus allowing a developer to build a Walmart. Norman, the Sprawl Buster, led a ballot initiative to reverse that zoning decision, and his narrow win surprised just about everybody in Greenfield, including him. "We really tried to play up the idea that Greenfield had a lot to lose," he told me. "Our slogan was, 'You can buy cheap underwear at Walmart, but you can't buy small-town quality of life anywhere.'"
A decade later, when a developer again tried to put a Walmart outside of town, Norman fought it because the new site was on a wetland. Eventually, the state's Department of Environmental Protection forbade construction. Then, in 2011, when the developer reconfigured the site and won a planning board's permission to build, Norman found plaintiffs to file a lawsuit against the developer that is still winding its way through court. He drove me by both sites when I was in town, and both are still tree-filled fields, rather than the big stores developers had envisioned.