Today, the news came that WalMart had decided not to build on the disputed spot on the Wilderness Battlefield. I am cautiously optimistic.
Back in May, 2009, I attended the hearing regarding the WalMart held by the County board of supervisors. I apparently didn’t blog about the meeting afterwards, for which I apologize. Two statements by citizens of the county really caught my attention.
One was from a gentleman who studied the history of the Battle of Wilderness; I believe he was a professional historian. The Board of Supervisors, WalMart, and their supporters repeatedly said that the site “wasn’t on the battlefield” – what they meant was that it wasn’t in the bounds of the state and national parks. According to the historian who spoke, the spot where the WalMart wanted to build was where units from the United States Colored Troops had been stationed, and nearby was where wounded soldiers had been taken for aid. Not active battlefield, to some people’s minds, but an important part of the landscape of the battle.
The other memorable points came from a former Law Enforcement Officer. He had lived and worked in a county much like Orange, which had seen the construction of a big box store, heralded as a bringer of jobs and income. What it brought, he said, was an increase in petty crime and thereby an increased need for police. He pointed out that there is only one jail in Orange County – in the city of Orange. There is only one road from the battlefield area to the county seat, a two-lane country road, and the drive from one to the other is about half an hour to 45 minutes (I speak from experience). He was concerned about the location and the potential negative drain on the county’s resources.
If you look at a map of Orange County, Wilderness Battlefield and the proposed site for the WalMart are on the east (right), just at the point where State Routes 20 and 3 connect. In fact, that spot is on the line with Spotsylvania County. The store would have been as likely to hire people from Spotsylvania as Orange. With the concerns raised by the former L.E.O., I was decidedly against the WalMart in that location.
Here’s the thing about Orange County. Drive 25 minutes east from Wilderness and you’re in a retail corridor which is slowly creeping west from Fredericksburg and I-95. There are big-box stores in Culpeper, north along US 15, and they just opened a Wal-Mart about 10 minutes west from the county on US 29. The middle of the county is less developed, except for the city of Orange itself.
Proponents of the WalMart in its original location said that they wanted jobs and development in the county, that the preservationists and opponents were hurting the local economy. I work in Orange County, my post office is there, and I want the county to succeed. I freely admit that I would rather see more businessess like the new restaurant or a new independent bookstore, not a big box, but I didn’t oppose the WalMart absolutely. Just in that location. Moreover, WalMart has said they want to find a place to build in the county, and I applaud them – it’s what many of us were asking for all along. I think they should look at the area where Rt. 3 and 522 cross. It is more centrally located for the county, making it easier for people from all parts to come and shop or work.
To be honest, I don’t like WalMart. As a company, they have suspect policies, a history of gender discrimination, and something about the architecture or design of their spaces makes me so uncomfortable I can’t shop there. Despite my personal reservations, I am pleased that they came to the decision to move their planned development.
The grey lining to this silver cloud is that, so far as I know, the parcel of land on the battlefield’s edge is still zoned commercial. Yes, the zoning is almost 40 years old and, from what I understand, should have expired by now, but to county Board of Supervisors has shown a willingness to bend the rules. I will not be completely at ease until the future of that piece of battlefield is protected in a way that shows respect to its past.