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When preservation-minded people and giant companies clash, corporate America doesn't always come out on top
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Date published: 1/27/2011
By CLINT SCHEMMER
The Wilderness Walmart case looks to be the latest proof that when big-box stores take on preservationists in Virginia, they face formidable foes.
In local residents' recent memory, Walmart swore it would build a Supercenter at George Washington's boyhood home in Stafford, only to scrap its plan when another site was offered nearby.
In Warrenton, officials rejected a couple of store sites until Walmart found one to their liking. Its change of heart didn't come easily, either.
In historic Chestertown, Md., Walmart's store plans hit a buzz saw of opposition that fueled a 9-year-long court battle, which it lost.
But more often, the giant retailer prevails.
One industry analyst said yesterday that said it is rare for Walmart to back away from a store once it has researched a location and chosen a site.
Burt P. Flickinger III of Strategic Resource Group said Walmart may have wanted to avoid a protracted public-relations mess when its sales are disappointing Wall Street and the Arkansas-based company faces increased competition.
Its decision about the Wilderness project was based on "practical business reasons," Flickinger said, and harks back to founder Sam Walton's credo that Walmart should never build a store where it isn't wanted.
"To the company's credit, they decided to do something different," said Flickinger, a Walmart shareholder.
Robert Rosenbaum, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Wilderness lawsuit, lauded Walmart's change of mind, which he said surprised everyone.
"I think this was the right decision for them to make," he said. "The preservation community is looking forward to working with Walmart and with the county to come up with a way of preserving the site for posterity."
His firm, Arnold & Porter of Washington, volunteered its services in the case.
"I hope this sends a message not only to Walmart but to other developers that the preservation community is willing to fight for historic sites," Rosenbaum said.
He said he had looked forward to litigating the case, and was confident the plaintiffs, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield and six Orange and Spotsylvania residents, would have won.