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Another Blow to the Big Box

We're bruised and drained, but there'll be no Wal-Mart in Campbell River – this time.

Quentin Dodd 6 Jul
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The Battle of the Big Box Store in Campbell River is over -- for now. The threat of Wal-Mart building a 111,000-square-foot store, complete with automotive bays and more than 600 parking slots only metres from the edge of the Campbell River's estuary waters has been removed - but only for the moment, as the two sides reassess their positions.

As in Vancouver, where often-divided COPE councillors united last week to reject a proposed Wal-Mart in an 8-3 vote, the Campbell River council's clear decision surprised observers. Six councillors and Mayor Lynn Nash voted unanimously Monday night to turn down the giant corporation's application for rezoning.

The decision received a standing ovation from the 400 opponents packed into a theatre to accommodate the large turnout. But it was also clear that the whole process had been bruising, draining and exhausting for everyone involved, from the councillors and the community's hundreds of worried residents, to the Campbell River Indian Band caught in the middle of the furor. The band, which has an option to purchase the land from its current owner, TimberWest, sided with Wal-Mart in the debate.

The turning point

Many feared that the three more development-minded members of council would support the rezoning, leaving Mayor Nash to cast the deciding vote. But when it became clear that the "Not This Site" supporters would carry the day, a group of placard-carrying First Nations members made a disgruntled exit. And shortly afterwards, the audience of close to 400 people stood to applaud council, even before the vote had been taken and Nash had had a chance to speak.

Council members had listened to and decided to go along with the almost unanimous opinion of more than 300 people who spoke passionately against the proposal at last week's 17 hours of public hearings. The community of 30,000 made it clear they don't want a big slab-sided store so close to the river -- the community's lifeblood -- one of the area's most beautiful tourist attractions and a vital component of its sports, commercial and aboriginal fisheries.

Band Council wants land back

However, the Campbell River Indian Band Council has made it clear it intends to reclaim the land, and include it in its reserve, if possible. The band feels it was not accorded due respect in the Wal-Mart process. And band leaders emphasized that if the band obtains the money to buy and develop the site, it will be within its rights to build between 210 and 270 homes on the property without the rezoning. Some of that money could still come from Wal-Mart.

As it has done elsewhere, by locating Wal-Marts on reserve land and circumventing municipal approval, Wal-Mart chose to play the aboriginal card in Campbell River and appealed to the band's desire for jobs and development.

One potential site that was raised an alternative -- though not by the Band Council -- covers 15 acres of reserve land just across a major artery. It runs along one edge of the now-rejected property, next to the Nunns Creek tributary to the Campbell River. Unlike the previous site, it's not part of the estuary area.

Many people who put enormous amounts of time and effort into the weekly rallies and ongoing battle made it clear they didn't mind Wal-Mart coming to town if it wanted. But not even the downtown merchants close to the estuary site -- whose businesses might well be more seriously affected if the store is built close to the outskirts of town on land being developed by the Cape Mudge Indian Band -- wanted it where it could and probably would damage the Campbell's estuarine habitat and its fish and wildlife.

'A myth that will never happen'

Last week, the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced at one of the public hearings that if the current negotiations between the Campbell River Band and TimberWest should fail, the NCC intends to buy the former forest-industry land and restore it.

A member of the band council, which intends to exercise its option to buy the property, responded that as far as they're concerned that's a myth that will never happen.

The controversy is far from over. And there are hurt feelings on all sides. Council members were not always given the courtesy due their position. Totally unsupported allegations of corruption got tossed around. Threats and attempts at intimidation were used on both sides. Worst of all, the Campbell River Indian Band were used and misused in the tussle.

Now that this particular battle is over, some suspect Wal-Mart, which had woefully inadequate support studies, really has something else in mind. That left the band in a difficult position, having to defend a seriously flawed proposal in a sensitive area.

And it turned out that, in part because of that, not all band members entirely supported the proposal, especially considering the tiny financial benefits and number of jobs a previous large commercial development on band property had yielded.

Battling together

Although the highly contentious proposal succeeded in bringing hundreds of people together in a new awareness of the importance of the community's heritage river and its estuary, it also deeply divided people, leaving more than a little bitterness and plain exhaustion in its wake. Many long-standing residents wanted to protect their beloved river and estuary, but they also didn't want to see the Campbell River Indian Band savaged in the process.

Not that Wal-Mart could be expected to care about that. The company will now retrench to consider its options. It says it still intends to come to Campbell River, even though there is a fairly new store available 25 minutes away in Courtenay.

One thing the whole ugly dispute has also done though, is put people in this sometimes-sleepy town on their toes, alert and watchful and determined as never before to battle anyone else who wants to monkey with the Campbell River and estuary. That's a community resource that ought to be held in trust for coming generations of visitors and residents -- aboriginal and non-aboriginal -- alike.

Quentin Dodd is a regular contributor to The Tyee and lives in Campbell River.  [Tyee]

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