Of Wetlands and Wal-Marts

One development at a time, Missouri has lost 87 percent of its wetlands. And that means more floods, more damage, more levees, more bucks. The story of one Supercenter and how progress comes at a price.

A high-volume hum rumbles and echoes throughout the cavernous, 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter in Festus-Crystal City. It's the audible motion of scanners and intercoms, and carts clashing under fluorescent lights. It's the low-frequency buzz of bargains and price checks and credit-card approvals.

It's the sound of people buying things.
Lots and lots of things. They're buying eyedrops, tackle boxes, candied yams, sugar substitute, golf balls and tea. Within this 4.5-acre, steel-framed box, there's a discount store, a pharmacy, a hair salon, a bank, a grocery store and a tire-and-lube express. Everything from fine-grained sandpaper to double-iced cinnamon buns is in the thousands of carts that pass through dozens of checkout lanes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This bargain-hunter's megalith is a virtual tax mint for the twin cities, faced with the dueling pressures of increased urban immigration and the corresponding budget shortfalls. Official projections predict St. Louis and St. Louis County will bleed some 36,000 residents during the next 20 years; Jefferson County is expected to pick up 39,000. In light of the predictions, of the need for bigger schools and wider streets, larger police forces and longer sewage tunnels, towns like Festus and Crystal City can either prepare or brace for the worst. The towns, a half-hour's drive from St. Louis, expect a 50 percent increase in population all their own.

So in 1993, the Wal-Mart Supercenter was built on a useless swamp near Plattin Creek that was providing neither tax revenue nor scenic beauty. It was constructed on the boundary of the two towns. When customers enter the south end of the building, they're greeted by a "Welcome to the Crystal City Wal-Mart" sign; those who enter from the north end see "Welcome to the Festus Wal-Mart."

Outside, surrounding the packed parking lot, stand the economic addendums to one of the best-performing Wal-Mart Supercenters in the country: Fashion Bug, Arby's, Blockbuster Video, Fast Foto, a Coastal gas station with a 24-hour drive-through pizzeria and a message to local patrons: "Good luck deer hunters. Come home safe."

In this area, where the per capita annual income is $11,000 and where pickup trucks still outnumber sport-utility vehicles 2-to-1, the construction of the Wal-Mart Supercenter added more choices, more conveniences and more jobs than anything like it before. "It's great," says Crystal City Mayor Grant Johnston. "This Wal-Mart store is in the top percentage in the country in terms of sales, and we split the property taxes and the sales taxes with Festus. It also employs an immense number of people, and there are ancillary people who supply that Wal-Mart all around."

According to Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., a Supercenter like this one normally employs about 450 people (70 percent full-time) and pays an average of $150,000 in property taxes and $2.5 million in sales taxes each and every year. "I can say that this store has exceeded our expectations," says Keith Morris, spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. "It's been an excellent-performing store since it opened its doors."

That's saying a lot for one rural store that's part of a multinational company that sold $43 billion worth of stuff in the first half of this year. The overall operating profit for Wal-Mart for the first six months of this year was $3.1 billion, a 27 percent increase from the first six months of 1997.

Much of that increase was due to the popularity of the Supercenter concept, where one-stop shopping truly hits its stride.

In Missouri alone there are 109 Wal-Mart stores -- including 30 Supercenters -- which in 1997 paid $24 million in state and local taxes, collected $208 million in sales taxes and employed 27,266, or about the entire population of Kirkwood.

Needless to say, when the Festus-Crystal City store opened its doors five years ago on what had been an empty 5-acre swamp, the applause was more than perfunctory.

The Spin Cycle
If you stand in the back lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter and look south beyond the cattails, the marsh grass and the meandering Plattin Creek, you can just see the distant wooded bluffs that meet Doug Sunshine's bottom soybean field. It's tilled under now, save for a stretch of winter wheat planted seasonally for the deer.

As Sunshine stands there gazing out, the tranquility of the Jefferson County landscape pales under the shadow of the Wal-Mart and the enormity of his own unease. "This makes no sense," he says softly, turning back and forth between the Wal-Mart and the marsh area as though unsure where to direct his alarm. He settles his stare on the 5-acre marsh area to the south and stands, hands on hips, eyes on a red-winged blackbird perched on a tire in the mud. He shakes his head, then shields his eyes.

He's thinking about the levee.
In several months, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will decide how to build it -- a 500-year flood structure on the north side of Plattin Creek -- to separate the creek from Festus, Crystal City and the Wal-Mart that belongs to both. It concerns Sunshine that his property, on the south side of the levee, may take on extra water during floods. It also concerns him that the thing will cost about $10 million in local and federal money. But what bothers Sunshine most, what bothers a lot of folks living on or near the creek, is that it has to be built in the first place.

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