HEBER CITY This once-quiet mountain town has been engulfed by a modern-age political fight that has been waged in suburbs across Utah and all of America.
Wal-Mart: Everyday low prices but at what cost?
Voters will decide Nov. 6 whether they want a Wal-Mart off their Main Street.
The ballot asks if a new zone should be accepted allowing retail outlets larger than 60,000 square feet into the Wasatch County community. The Boyer Co. development firm wants to build a 70-acre mixed-use development that, if voters approve, would include Wal-Mart as the anchor tenant.
Opponents argue that Heber will lose its charm and local flavor if such a massive development is built. Developers promise stores residents have wanted for years, since most shopping must be done in nearby Park City or in Provo or Salt Lake City.
Wade Williams, Boyer's director of retail development, said residents will get shopping they've never had before clothing and shoe stores, plus restaurants.
He lists "mind-boggling" census statistics that show Heber grew 15 percent from 2000 to 2003 but retail sales only went up 1.2 percent.
On top of that, he points to Boyer-commissioned studies that show 90 percent of Heber residents have shopped at a Wal-Mart in the past 90 days and Heber residents spend $100 million worth of "leakage" outside city boundaries.
"That's what attracted us to Heber. You have this tremendous residential growth, but no retailers have moved into that marketplace and retail sales are just flat," Williams said.
But members of a grass-roots group calling itself Put Heber Valley First say they don't want to live in a place that is just like everywhere else. The group in April succeeded in collecting enough petition signatures for a voter referendum. The City Council passed an ordinance allowing big-box development in February, but the referendum allows voters to choose the town's future.
Heber has avoided an influx of chains and strip malls for years. Put Heber Valley First says the city should take time to appropriately grow a retail base.
"We're not a city in trouble. We're a city in demand, we're a city with options and choices, so why we'd rush to do the same old thing and change the rural nature of the place; I can't figure it out," said Matt Heimburger, a leader of the group. "We're doing this because we care about our community and want to see one of the most unique places in the West stay that way."
Heimburger argues that "leakage" spending includes vacations and car purchases both expensive items that locals will never purchase in Heber.
Put Heber Valley First has raised $2,500 so far to battle the developers, but Heimburger says they're competing with an avalanche.
"It's the wrong move for the town. It's being pitched as though it's inevitable, it has to happen, every town lets Wal-Mart in," he said, "but the truth is, not every town goes this direction. All the promises Boyer makes about increased taxes (revenues,) all the promises that are true positives can be achieved without big box."
Boyer also faced a referendum against one of its Wal-Mart-anchored, mixed-use developments in 2005. A group of Sandy residents tried to prevent the developer from building a Wal-Mart in the city's former gravel pit. The citizens group eventually lost at the ballot box, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Boyer's Williams points to that project, Quarry Bend, as a similar-quality project that Heber residents could see. The Heber development would be a mix of housing, both single-family style and townhomes, that would be a buffer between the residents to the west and the commercial development.
Boyer also donated eight acres of the project for new city roads that Boyer will build for $8 million if the project is approved.
If the vote passes, Boyer plans to move as quickly. Construction would begin in spring and the first phase would be completed by fall 2008.
Heimburger says that if it's tax growth the city wants, the city should take its time and pick the correct businesses that would still make Heber a destination town.
"Some people say it's just one Wal-Mart. But it's not. It's the beginning of dramatic change. We have to decide now what we want and how we want to make decisions as a community," he said.
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