Nearly 200 people are packed inside the small Deerwood Elementary cafeteria off Econlockhatchee Trail in southeast Orlando on the evening of April 14. There aren't any open seats for people arriving late, and a third of the crowd is forced to stand against the walls.
Residents of several area neighborhoods are here to vent their frustrations about a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter planned for the busy corner of Econlockhatchee Trail and Curry Ford Road. It's a diverse crowd, ranging from senior citizens to young professionals. Some women hold napping children to their shoulders. Many residents, who rushed here from their jobs, are still in their work clothes.
A man wearing an American-flag tie wipes the sweat from his forehead with a small napkin. For the last 30 minutes, he's been trying to find extra seats for the growing crowd. When he runs out of chairs, he walks to the center of the room and tries speaking into a microphone. It's broken, so he has to shout.
"May I have your attention please?" he yells, quieting the crowd. "My name is John Smogor. I'm from the Orange County Planning Board. You've been called to this community meeting to discuss the Wal-Mart Supercenter being planned for the corner of Curry Ford Road and Econlockhatchee Trail."
The crowd boos and hisses at Smogor, who smiles and continues.
"Now listen, the rules for this meeting are pretty simple. Everyone needs to be nice. After the meeting, if you don't like what someone is saying and you want to drag them out to the parking lot and beat the snot out of them, go ahead." The crowd erupts into cheers.
Standing outside an open cafeteria window, Donna Abolafia watches Smogor with her hands on her hips. A resident of the nearby Villages of Rio Pinar, Abolafia helped spearhead the community response to Wal-Mart's plans. Like most at the meeting tonight, Abolafia says Wal-Mart will bring big problems to her community.
"Our roads, our neighborhoods, our low crime rates, our local businesses all of it will suffer if Wal-Mart takes over that corner," she says.
On March 24, Abolafia received a notice in the mail from the Orange County Planning Division informing her of the April 14 meeting. She contacted the president of her homeowners' association, Ed Markey, for more information about the Supercenter, and realized that most of her neighbors had no idea what was going on.
"Not everyone was getting the announcement about the Wal-Mart, so we made a survey and copied the flyer on the back. Then we put it in every mailbox we could find," says Abolafia. "By Sunday afternoon, `Markey's` fax machine was going off."
The survey asked neighbors whether or not they supported a Wal-Mart Supercenter. It also asked residents to specify which topics concerned them the most.
After distributing 361 flyers, Markey got 37 responses, roughly 10 percent. Only one respondent supported the Supercenter. The rest opposed it because of traffic problems, round-the-clock hours of operation, crime, noise and aesthetics. At the April 14 community meeting, not a single resident voiced support for the Wal-Mart.
The 120,333-square-foot Supercenter is planned for the intersection of Econlockhatchee Trail and Curry Ford Road, on a commercially zoned plot of land. The surrounding area is residential. The intersection itself has been under construction for months, and according to Orange County traffic engineer Ruby Rosier, it won't be finished until July 2006.
"You cannot go on Econlockhatchee and try to make a left turn on Curry Ford after 3 p.m. It won't happen because there's construction, there is no turn signal and there are too many cars," says Abolafia. "If they build a Wal-Mart there, it will mean even more traffic problems…."
According to a traffic study conducted by Traffic Planning and Design Inc. in Maitland, there will be an average of 3,267 daily trips to and from the Supercenter. The study also says that three roadway segments Chickasaw Trail from Cascade Road to Curry Ford Road, Curry Ford Road from Econlockhatchee Trail to Dean Road, and Lake Underhill Road from Madeira Road to Pershing Avenue don't have the capacity to handle the increased traffic.
Local residents aren't looking forward to the massive influx of traffic on the already troubled intersection of Curry Ford and Econlockhatchee Trail. Orange County traffic engineer Rosier says there are no plans to widen the two-lane Curry Ford Road, or to improve the traffic light problems at the intersection.
If the Supercenter is built, there will be six Wal-Marts three Supercenters and three Neighborhood Markets in a 10-mile radius.
"With all these other Wal-Marts nearby, what do you think another Supercenter could possibly bring to our neighborhood?" asks a resident who identifies himself only as "Christopher."
Eric Brewer, a Wal-Mart rep at the community meeting, answered the question by saying, "We'll be offering some of the lowest prices on goods in your area."
That's part of the problem, say neighbors.
"Normal-sized grocery stores tend to draw local community traffic, which isn't a problem," says Carol Barker. "But with a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter, their business plan is to draw people into our community from outside communities, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is not our community's business plan. Our business plan is to raise and care for our families."
Lochrane Engineering Inc. is the Orlando firm hired by Wal-Mart to develop the store. Bob Lochrane, who is heading the project, says neighbors shouldn't fear this Supercenter.
"This is not our fathers' and mothers' Wal-Mart," says Lochrane. "The only reason this particular Wal-Mart is being called a Supercenter is because it offers a grocery element."
According to Lochrane, the proposed site will be half the size of a normal "big box" Supercenter, stores that are sometimes up to 200,000 square feet. The store's design, which Lochrane describes as "Alpine style," is intended to be more aesthetically pleasing, incorporating arched rooflines and various exterior colors.
This Supercenter won't have a liquor store, gas station or automotive center, making it quieter and less crowded than most Supercenters, he says. It would employ 350 to 400 people.
Directly behind the proposed Wal-Mart, a new neighborhood called "The Fountains" is under construction. Less than five homes have been built, but the entire neighborhood has already sold out.
"The future homeowners of this new neighborhood don't even know that a Wal-Mart Supercenter is being built literally in their backyards," says Abolafia. "There will only be a wall separating their homes from the 24-hour service entrance of the Supercenter. That means bright lights and huge service trucks will be bothering these residents all night."
Parents with children at the nearby Deerwood Elementary School, located just 2 miles from the site on Econlockhatchee Trail, also expressed their traffic frustrations.
"There's no bus service for our kids, so many of them have to walk or ride bikes," says a Deerwood Elementary parent. "Traffic is at a standstill twice a day when school starts and ends."
Author Al Norman says disputes over Wal-Marts are common. According to his website, www.sprawl-busters.com, 16 Florida cities have fended off Wal-Marts, including Gainesville, Clermont, DeLand, St. Petersburg and Ocala.
In his book Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart, Norman writes that neighbors should care where their neighbors shop. "What we ultimately have to do is convince our friends and neighbors that there is a politics of shopping, that it does matter to your hometown where you shop."
Norman calls Wal-Marts "sprawl," or "poorly planned, low-density, auto-oriented development that spreads out from the center of communities."
And Wal-Mart has critics on other fronts.
"Wal-Mart's success is attributed to its ability to charge low prices in mega-stores offering everything from toys and furniture to groceries," writes Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in a 2004 report titled "Everyday Low Wages: The Hidden Price We All Pay for Wal-Mart."
"While charging low prices obviously has some consumer benefits, mounting evidence from across the country indicates that these benefits come at a steep price for American workers, U.S. labor laws and community living standards," Miller writes.
Wal-Mart has garnered a reputation for underpaying employees, offering unaffordable health benefits, practicing gender inequality and refusing to pay employees overtime. "As of December 2002, there were 39 class-action lawsuits filed against the company in 30 states, claiming tens of millions of dollars in back pay for hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart employees," writes Miller, who adds that lower employee wages mean higher taxes for everyone else.
"The Democratic Staff of the Committee on Education and the Workforce estimates that one 200-person Wal-Mart store may result in a cost to federal taxpayers of $420,750 per year about $2,103 per employee," he writes.
When a Wal-Mart comes into town, writes Miller, there is a ripple effect. "Other stores are forced out of business or forced to cut employees' wages and benefits in order to compete with Wal-Mart."
On April 27, the county's Development Review Committee will meet to reassess the proposed Wal-Mart. If designers are in compliance with codes and laws, approval for the project goes to Orange County commissioners six to eight weeks later. Residents will need four commissioners on their side to win against Wal-Mart.
In the meantime, the corner of Curry Ford and Econlockhatchee Trail is already showing signs of neglect. Resident Kathy Craft says, "There is already litter all around the area planned for development. The palm trees are dying, and the appearance is unkempt. I don't care what your commercials say, Wal-Mart is not neighborhood-friendly."