The conflict between a group of vocal residents and the international retail behemoth Walmart couldn't have been broken down more dramatically than it was Thursday night by Donald Stack, an attorney.
"You have got to understand that this is a war," Stack told a crowd of roughly 200 inside a packed room in . "It is a war for your community. It is a war for your property values. It is a war for your safety. ... You have got to make sure that you stay focused."
Stack represents Good Growth DeKalb, the group of local residents fighting the construction of a Walmart Supercenter in Suburban Plaza very close to the church. His comments at the group's first community forum were among the opening criticisms from a number of frustrated residents directed at Walmart and Selig Enterprises, the owner and redeveloper of Suburban Plaza.
Of the standing room-only group, less than 20 made it to the mic to voice their concerns and opinions. Virtually all of them said they don't want Walmart moving into North Decatur. Most focused on common criticisms of the retailer – that a store's presence eliminates more and better jobs than its creates. That, through aggressively low pricing and expansion, the retailer eventually kills small or family-owned businesses. That it creates traffic congestion and lowers a community's quality of life.
"My hometown, Georgetown, South Carolina, was ruined by Walmart," said Carter Joseph, nearly screaming without a mic. "They standardize everything. They go for the lowest common denominator. ... They treat their employees like dirt, they treat their suppliers like dirt."
Jan Crofford, another local resident, said she felt a redevelopment featuring Walmart represented a lost opportunity.
"In my vision, Suburban Plaza would be a gateway to Decatur," she said. "I'd like to say to the Seligs: It's 2012 now, and I'd really like them to be good stewards of our community. ... I don't believe that a big box business is the way that we should be heading."
While vocal support for Walmart at the meeting was almost nonexistant, Peggy Sharkey of Decatur stood to support the retailer, saying even though she isn't a Walmart sympathizer, she believes the retailer's negative reputation among residents is too severe. The store will create sorely needed jobs, she said.
"Walmart may not be ideal jobs, but if you’re not putting food on the table, and you're not providing for your family, that job is better than no job," she said. "We all need to be willing to be flexible."
Melissa Link, one of the featured speakers representing a group fighting Walmart in Athens, shot back: "You wouldn't tell a victim of domestic violence that an abusive husband was better than no husband at all," she said to applause.
Several residents also said they were concerned that the Walmart will sit between and Emory University Hospital. Selig has said the county has traffic counts and does not believe any traffic increase will be an issue. One local resident, the Rev. Richard Rogers, said he feared a heavy traffic increase on the road could have tragic consequences for some hospital patients.
"A Walmart of that size they're contemplating will cause congestion," he said. "Everyone that is trying to get [to Emory] from the west is at risk. ... Ask yourselves, how many people will die because they can't get to the hospital quickly enough?"
Roz Dewart said she didn't understand why another Walmart was necessary when the retailer operates another store on Memorial Drive just several miles away.
"Isn't there a point of oversaturation? Is my only choice for shopping in the future going to be Walmart?" she said.
While Stack will represent the group if it eventually files a lawsuit against the two companies, he told residents that focusing on media coverage and working the politics of the issue should be first priority.
"Legal recourse should always be the last resort. It is not a panacea," he said. "It is not the magic pill that will solve all your problems."
The church meeting was the largest yet hosted by Good Growth DeKalb, which organized shortly before the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeals in December, essentially giving them the go-ahead to start construction. Stack was brought on after the group met its first fundraising goal – $4,000 – in about two weeks. The average gift from local families has been about $67, organizers said.
The group also announced it collected more than $1,000 in cash at Thursday's forum, said Mike Koblentz, chairman of the Northwest Community Alliance and host of the forum.
"This is an unbelievable turnout," he said. "You don't get this everyday."
Stack did not offer the audience any details about how the group might fight Walmart legally. They're currently in the process of requesting documents from the county, and the group plans to focus on several events in the near future, including a protest walk March 10.
"Good Growth DeKalb takes a position that Walmart at Suburban Plaza is not a done deal. We oppose Walmart at Suburban Plaza," said Louise Runyon, an organizer with the group. "Walmart is a giant that is breathing down our neck at the moment."