History vs. Wal-Mart is wrong battle

I was curious when Preserve Nevada listed Jack's Bar in Carson City and the Union Hotel in Dayton among its 11 threatened historic sites in the state.

Both are full of history, of course, and both are more likely to fall down before somebody knocks them down.

I'm a firm believer in preserving history, not only for the sense of context and community such places provide but because I also think they are key to the future of Northern Nevada, which must rely on the unique character of its past to draw tourists.

To say either place is threatened might be an overstatement at the moment, but the purpose of lists like Preserve Nevada's is to draw attention to historic sites that might be lost. In the case of the Union Hotel, it's neglect. At Jack's Bar, it's a question of how much structural work needs to be done to keep it standing.

I was thinking about Jack's Bar and the Union Hotel the other day when I read that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed the entire state of Vermont on its national list of 11 most endangered historic places.

No, the state of Vermont isn't falling down - though, like Jack's Bar, it might be leaning to the left rather severely.

And Vermont isn't being neglected, either. Tourism seems to be booming.

The threat to the historic character of the entire state of Vermont, according to the National Trust, is Wal-Mart.

Just 10 years ago, Vermont was the last state in the Union without a Wal-Mart store. "Today, it has four - and it now faces an invasion of behemoth stores that could destroy much of what makes Vermont Vermont," according to the National Trust.

There are plans by Wal-Mart to build seven superstores, each at least 150,000 square feet, on the outskirts of seven quaint and historic Vermont towns.

"The likely result: degradation of the Green Mountain State's unique sense of place, economic disinvestment in historic downtowns, loss of locally owned businesses, and an erosion of the sense of community that seems an inevitable byproduct of big-box sprawl," the Trust said.

I agree with all that. I don't agree it's the mission of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to fight Wal-Mart.

It's a lot like the Sierra Club taking on the issue of illegal immigration. Yes, the consequences could be dire, but the target is so broad as to be ethereal. In the end, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has diluted its message.

The National Trust, we know, isn't the only one battling Wal-Mart. It's an on-going controversy all over the country.

In Carson City, though, there's been very little debate over whether Wal-Mart is a good thing or a bad thing. That's because Wal-Mart already was a presence, and the controversy came when it took its sales-tax dollars across the line to Douglas County. Whatever effect it's having on the local economy in general hasn't changed, except for the fact it added a grocery store.

With a second Wal-Mart coming next year on the north side of town, including a grocery, the squeeze is going to be on the other stores. It's widely speculated that somebody's going to get knocked out of the market. But the effect on retail in general probably won't be dramatic, because there's been a hole since Kmart shut down.

The real question addressed by the National Trust of Historic Preservation isn't whether to allow Wal-Mart or prohibit it. The real question is how much pressure a community's leaders can put on the world's largest retailer to conform to local standards.

And that's where it gets tricky. A lot of people think Carson City should have bent over backwards to keep the store in the south end of town. In fact, city officials were thinking of anything possible that might work - and that's where the whole controversy over Fuji Park started.

On the north end of town, should city supervisors have told Wal-Mart not to build a new store? Should they have insisted that no new big-box retailer be built until the old one - Kmart - is filled in? In Carson City, that's not going to happen.

But there are other considerations. The city's spending $200,000 to help the traffic flow around the new Wal-Mart. Could they have turned the tables and told Wal-Mart it needs to contribute $200,000 to the city's street fund?

Is it OK with Carson City that the Wal-Mart here looks exactly like the Wal-Mart in Chattanooga? If the U.S. Postal Service can make an attempt to replicate the historical architecture of the city, can't Wal-Mart?

Truly, I don't think so. That's why I think the National Trust is off the mark, at least with the Vermont campaign. I would like to see nice-looking big-box stores, but they're not part of our history. They're the stores that should be torn down every 10 years or so to make room for new development. I don't care if Wal-Mart looks like Wal-Mart because, for crying out loud, that's what it is.

Does Lowe's look better than Ernst, which looked better than the old Kmart off Fairview? Probably. Is it going to be a historic building in 100 years? No.

Don't give me faux history. Give me real history. Save the buildings worth saving. Preserve downtown Carson City - both aesthetically and economically.

Is that Wal-Mart's job? No. It's ours.

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Write to him at bsmith@nevadaappeal.com.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment