CATEGORY: Lafayette County
HED: Wal-Mart opponents hope to stop road expansion
By Errol Castens
OXFORD - Some Oxford-area residents who see the town's character endangered by a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter are hoping to stop the expansion of the street in front of the building site.
At their June 6 meeting, Oxford aldermen unanimously approved issuing up to $5 million in bonds to expand almost a mile of Jackson Avenue from its west end at Miss. Hwy. 6 to Heritage Drive from two lanes to five.
Wal-Mart Stores of America has announced plans to build a new Supercenter and accompanying retail outparcels near the west end of Jackson Avenue, and it has agreed to pay $1.5 million of the $1.9 million cost of five-laning the area along the front of its proposed site.
Environmental activist Ann Phillippi, bookstore owner Richard Howorth and others are circulating a petition to force a referendum on a $5 million bond issue that would largely finance expansion of eight-tenths of a mile of Jackson Avenue, the city's main east-west artery, from its intersection with Mississippi Highway 6 to Heritage Drive.
Petition backers say their beef is largely with what they see as a secretive process of negotiations between city officials, Wal-Mart and Trezevant Realty to obligate Oxford to finance a massive road project to benefit the retail giant.
"As I understand it, the road is being improved ... to accommodate traffic to Wal-Mart," said Howorth, owner of Square Books, an independent book retailer in downtown Oxford. "Maybe the city wouldn't need to expand the road if Wal-Mart weren't going to build there."
"Local mom-and-pop businesses and local residents are upset that we were not given any opportunity to discuss the issue in an open forum," said Phillippi, who lives outside Oxford in Lafayette County.
Phillippi contends that the city is spending taxpayer money to woo Wal-Mart and that many area residents don't want to see a Supercenter located here.
"Every single business we have contacted has been in support of our petition," she said. The petition is being distributed all around Oxford. It states:
"As a registered voter of Oxford, Mississippi, I oppose the issuance of General Obligation Bonds for the purpose of funding Jackson Avenue Phase 4, a condition imposed by Wal-Mart on the City in order to facilitate the building of a Wal-Mart SuperCenter. We hereby request that the issuance of these bonds be voted on by the citizens of Oxford."
Phillippi said the signed petitions can be turned in to her through noon on June 30. She can be reached at 236-1456.
Long-term street plan
Phase 4 of the Jackson Avenue project will be pushed ahead of Phase 3 to coincide with the $70 million Wal-Mart and outparcel construction, but city officials insist that the street project was not created for the benefit of any single business.
"It has always been our intent and plan to complete the five-laning of Jackson Avenue to the point that it intersects with Highway 6," said Pat Lamar, who became mayor in 1997. "We just had to find a way to pay for it." Wal-Mart's $1.5 million offer means that much less that taxpayers will have to pay, she said.
Although the city board authorized borrowing up to $5 million for Phase 4, its overall cost is estimated at $5 million, including the retailer's $1.5 million contribution.
"Given ... that Wal-Mart is going to relocate and that they have chosen their own site and that they have offered to pay this, we would not be fiscally responsible in rejecting the offer," Lamar said. "The whole city the whole county will benefit from the completion of the road."