ELLENVILLE Feelings ran hot and public displays of approval and disapproval were on exhibit at this Tuesday's Wawarsing Planning Board meeting, which featured a public hearing regarding Walmart's proposed store in Napanoch, as well as a camera crew filming footage for a documentary for CNBC.
As reported last week, the documentary is tentatively titled The New Age of Walmart, and is a follow-up to another CNBC documentary from about five years ago called The Age of Walmart. The film is being produced by Lori Gordon, who was present at the planning board meeting with her cameraman and sound technician, the latter of whom held a boom microphone high above the heads of the evening's speakers. The crew moved throughout the courtroom of the Ellenville Government Center, capturing the night's different speakers on camera, often to the chagrin of Planning Board Chairman Marty Lonstein, who repeatedly asked the crew to get out of his line of sight so he could see members of the public who wished to speak.
Speakers ranged from those who've made appearances at previous planning board meetings to those who seemed to come out special for this evening's hearing. One woman, who said that she hadn't yet been to a hearing held up reading glasses, saying that she'd bought seven pairs of them for 79 cents at a Walmart, and alleged that Rite Aid was charging over $33 for the same product.
"This is why we need Walmart!" she exclaimed, to applause from the audience. "And I'm tired, I am so tired of these stores taking advantage of us! Let's all get together and fight and let Walmart come in! I'll wash your floor any day."
Many of the speakers that night expressed similar sentiments, and were greeted with similar bouts of applause from the crowd, which packed the 100-seat courtroom. Another woman cited statements made by Bill Cuttiday of Majek Furniture (who is opening a new branch of his store in Ellenville), who said that he chose Ellenville because of Walmart's application to open a store in Napanoch, saying that the big-box retailer's belief that the community can support a store is proof that it can support his store as well.
"If you put Walmart in here, it's going to create jobs, new taxes, and it's going to attract people to come to the area, maybe to open a store that other people might want to see and deal with," said yet another resident in support of the retailer. "All you have in Ellenville right now is pizza places, places to eat, and drugs on the streets."
Of course, not all of those who spoke were singing Walmart's praises. Local activist and former Village Trustee Steve Krulick, head of Wawarsing-Ellenvlle for Responsible Development (WERD), appeared before the board and read from a statement. As he walked to the front of the room, he responded to murmurs in the audience, saying, "Yes, you all have to listen to me again," acknowledging what seemed like an unpopular position in the room that night.
During his comments, Krulick criticized the planning board for not exercising due diligence when they issued a negative declaration for Walmart's application last month, a decision which absolves the applicants from submitting to a more in-depth environmental impact study. "I was confident the planning board would do its job and look at all the evidence," he said. "Alas, it seems they have not done their job at all." Krulick compared them to the Ulster County Planning Board, saying they "did not accept at face value everything Walmart submitted, as this board seems to have." Krulick said that he had "agreed to be a party to litigation to put all this before an objective judge.
"Maybe, outside the Wawarsing pressure cooker, under subpoena and discovery, the truth of how this came about will be uncovered: the timing of the zoning code's passage, the grandfathering of Walmart [a reference to their being exempted from recently passed zoning changes], arbitrary and selective enforcement of rules, ignoring due process, and flouting legitimate questions and recommendations." The conclusion of Krulick's comments was greeted with a chorus of boos.
Bill Tochterman, owner of Cohen's Bakery on Center Street, spoke next, pleading with the audience: "I ask you to be kind and polite. I have some things that I'd like to say, and I would like you to just listen and consider them.
"For my own part, I despise Walmart because I've seen what it's done to so many communities," he said, citing his experience as a resident and business owner in both Ellenville and Monticello. He alleged that Monticello's downtown area suffered dozens of business closures as a direct result of Walmart's impact, and that, should the retailer open in Napanoch, Ellenville's 53 empty businesses will have more closing businesses join their number.
Other members of the audience spoke after Tochterman to praise Walmart's application, one countering Tochterman's allegations, saying, "Monticello was going downhill even before Walmart got there. There were plenty of closed stores before Walmart even got there," to which the audience responded with more applause. "At least Walmart wants to come let them come!"
Joining the mix of opinions, representatives from the Empire State Regional Council of Carpenters spoke, repeating their request for Walmart to use local contractors and workers in the construction of their store. Local council representative Charlie Vealey and many other members of the council appeared at the meeting with Vealey and one other carpenter imploring for Walmart to hire locally and once again unfurled their banner which read "Shame on Walmart for Lowering Wage Standards." The council members who spoke said they weren't against Walmart's application, just their building practices, alleging that their stores are built using labor from out of state, and will hurt local workers by denying them opportunities.
After everyone had said their piece, the planning board closed the public hearing, and asked if representatives from Walmart wished to comment. Jacob Billig, Walmart's attorney, said that he and the rest of the retailer's representatives would be back at next month's meeting to move ahead with the next proceedings, and turned to the assembled crowd and said, "Thank you public."
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